I don’t think I’ve ever posted something from another writer before, and I don’t plan to do much of that, but when david j. moore (all lower case, like e.e. cummings) asked if I wanted to run an interview he did with stuntman/director Jesse V. Johnson I thought it sounded good to me. Johnson is on my short list of DTV-directors-to-keep-an-eye-on, and I’ve written about his movies PIT FIGHTER, THE BUTCHER and THE PACKAGE.
Moore is a contributor to many websights and magazines, most importantly Fangoria (because I subscribe to that) and he has an awesome-sounding book coming out next year called WORLD GONE WILD: A SURVIVOR’S GUIDE TO POST-APOCALYPTIC MOVIES, where he reviews more than 800 post-apocalypse movies and interviews many of their creators. His second book will be even more up our alley because it’s all about action stars. And I know he’s going all out for that because he told me he interviewed Lorenzo Lamas and asked him about NIGHT OF THE WARRIOR.
Here he talks Jesse V. Johnson, who discusses working with everyone from Steve Austin to Steven Spielberg. It’s a nice talk that’s very frank about what it’s like making low budget movies for video or the SyFy channel.
Thank you David for the interview and the rest of you I hope you enjoy it.
“Making it Personal”
An interview with Jesse V. Johnson
by david j. moore
So few directors working in the direct-to-video market are giving it their best when tasked with helming actioners starring the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Very few notable exceptions are Ernie Barbarash, Isaac Florentine, and Jesse V. Johnson, and what these guys are doing is taking their jobs seriously; they make it personal and they care about what they’re directing.
Johnson, the nephew of the infamous stuntman Vic Armstrong, has been in the movie business for several decades, working as a stuntman and stunt coordinator on big films like Charlie’s Angels, Mission Impossible III, and The Amazing Spiderman. He began his journey as a director when he directed the low budget direct-to-video film Pit Fighter, which co-starred Scott (Ninja) Adkins. Other impressive titles on Johnson’s resume as a director are Alien Agent with Mark Dacascos and Darren Shahlavi, The Last Sentinel with Don “The Dragon” Wilson, The Fifth Commandment with Rick Yune, and this year’s The Package, starring Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren. Clearly, Johnson is building an impressive list of action films, all starring some of the best in the business.
You told me earlier that you tend to get your directing assignments because the star of the film requests you as the director. Was that the case on The Last Sentinel?
Yeah, particularly on that one. I was called in. They had a director and they had a script, they’d actually been on preproduction on it. Don Wilson, who was the lead actor had found the money. I’d never quite gotten to the bottom of what happened, but basically he’d had a falling out with the director. The guy just walked. They had financing and they had Don. I was working on Beowulf at the time. I drove over there and listened to him and got him talking about himself, which is pretty easy to do with Don … he’d talk about the fight game and get very excited and animated. I’d written the script for The Last Sentinel a few years earlier for a friend of mine, Dominiquie Vandenberg [Pit Fighter], but we’d never been able to finance it. It looked like something that would have worked. It was about a guy who didn’t speak a lot, had a lot of shooting, martial arts, action in it.
That movie was released at the tail end of Don Wilson’s reign in the B-movie world. He really hasn’t done much since then. I thought it was a really great way to go out.
I worked really, really hard with him. We tried to surround him with as many solid actors as possible. I think the biggest problem with it – and I think she’s wonderful – but Katie Sackoff … I think people were so expecting the film to be a Katie Sackoff movie.
Well, yeah, she’s on the cover of the DVD.
It’s an innate sense of disappointment when you’re actually watching a movie about this quiet character [played by Wilson] who doesn’t say an awful lot. It’s actually a different kind of movie. I remember the awful disappointment in the VHS days when the movie was a completely different movie than the cover suggested. I watched how The Last Sentinel was received, and I was quite upset by it, really. If it had been anyone other than Katie, I think it would have been a better-received film.
You say you worked very hard on the film. Explain that.
It was really about planning everything we could. Creating those drone costumes way ahead of time, getting the guys to rehearse … every movie requires an awfully large commitment as a director or a writer. You commit yourself to it. It becomes a reality. It’s a very strange place to go. With that film, it was particularly difficult. There were so many elements … we were trying to compete with bigger films, which was a huge mistake. At the time, I thought I was invincible. I thought I could do it.
You’ve worked on some huge movies as a stunt coordinator. You already mentioned Beowulf. How was it to transition from bigger films to this low budget action movie?
We don’t really approach anything too differently. Obviously, people are being paid a lot more on those bigger ones, but you don’t ever try to water it down. You approach it with the same level of professionalism. Rehearsal time. It’s really a mental mindset. You commit to something even if it’s a slightly smaller scale. You’re not gonna have fifty guys, you’re gonna have five. You try to make it as good as possible. I’m very lucky in that I can go backwards and forwards between the two types. When I did The Package, I was coming off The Master and Lincoln, which I helped put together the big battle scene at the beginning. I did Thor with Kenneth Branagh. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best directors, not only alive, but in the history of filmmaking. I’m able to watch them and their techniques, and then apply them to my kind of movies. The economy at that level is incredible. When you’re talking about Spielberg, you’re talking about one take and move on, but there’s an awful lot of rehearsal time and preparation. You’re talking about someone who’s at the very top of their game, but there’s no sense of waste or no sense of them throwing money at things to fix them. That’s the wonderful thing you come away with. You’re also talking about incredible humility that these guys have at that level. Yes, the budgets are different, but you don’t change your mindset when you’re making a movie.
You said earlier, “My kind of movie.” What is your kind of movie?
I’m not sure I can define that because it changes from film to film. At the moment, what I’m desperately trying to do is to take a film that has action in it, and make it personal, and make it important to me, to make it resonate with an audience to a degree where they don’t notice the budget. It’s taken me six or seven pictures to learn that craft.
When do you think you’d finally found your niche or your style as a filmmaker?
I’m still learning.
After The Last Sentinel, you did Pit Fighter.
Yes. Then I did The Fifth Commandment.
I liked The Fifth Commandment. Rick Yune did a solid job in that. He wrote it and produced it as well, right?
It was certainly his baby. I worked enormously hard on it. We stepped off the plane in Thailand, myself, the AD and Rick, and there was a huge Thai crew that was assigned to us. We tried to make as good a film as possible. Rick was the boss, and also the lead actor, which, at the time, I wasn’t really equipped mentally to deal with. It’s good to know whom you’re serving. He asked me to make my kind of movie, and then would change his mind beforehand.
Rick Yune is the kind of guy who should have been given more starring film projects, but he had to go and do it himself.
He’s a force of nature. What he should really do is direct a film himself. He should get an AD to trust him, and a stunt coordinator to work with him, perhaps a second unit director who can guide him because he has such a clear idea of what he wants. He could probably do that. We had a blast doing it. I felt there were elements in the story that should have been strengthened before we shot, but at the end of the day it was probably a journeyman production for me.
Are the films you’ve directed designed to be released directly to video? I saw The Package in a theater, but it was the only theater showing it. I was super excited to see it on a big screen.
In my mind, they’re all destined for the movie theater. You cannot go out and aim to make a direct-to-DVD movie. You can’t do that. If you start honing yourself back and second-guessing … there are some people who work that way, but not me. I go out there and I make the best damn movie I possibly can. The best performances, the best camera angles, the best action. I do everything it takes, and I take it very personally. You are held back by your cost sometimes because it’s very expensive to release a movie in theaters. If you have a cast that has made movies theatrically and has failed theatrically, or if you have direct-to-DVD names, no one is going to release it theatrically. You know that going in. The moment we signed Eric Roberts for The Butcher, which was an enormously personal script that was actually one of my favorite pieces of material, the moment the producer signed Eric, I knew that 90% of my contacts that were waiting to see that film were not going to be interested any more. No matter how good a job I did, no matter how much of a statement I’d made, they wouldn’t come to the screening because of the casting. That’s a difficult place to find yourself. You cry a little bit about it and you go home. Eric is a cool actor, but the only way we were going to go theatrical was by not putting him on the poster or mentioning him anywhere, but of course they put him all over it. That’s how it goes. I love Eric, but he’ll say yes to anything with a paycheck. He will admit to it, so I don’t mind saying that. It just makes it extraordinarily difficult to get a good release.
You’ve worked with a lot of action guys who’ve made movies in the theatrical release world, but whose stars have fallen and now exclusively make movies for video. Talk about that.
There’s a myriad of reasons why they make these movies. They have bills that need to be paid. Divorces, and trials and tribulations they go through. They say yes to a script that’s terrible, which they know is terrible, and it’s an ever-decreasing circle. There’s very few who manage to buck that. Steve [Austin] is doing really well at the moment. He’s being very careful about what he says yes to. The next three films he has to act in, he’s also producing, which gives him creative control. We’re talking about a script at the moment. He has an enormous amount of influence over it. This is exactly how you reinvent yourself, by taking control of these things. We were working on a fifteen day schedule on The Package …
You only had fifteen days for that one? Wow! You had a bunch of great action guys in that one: Jerry Trimble, Darren Shahlavi, Lundgren, and Austin. Talk about working with these guys.
I’ve known Darren since England some 20 years ago. We have a long past together. We worked on Alien Agent together. What I like about Darren is that he’s a guy who’s continually honing his craft. He works like a madman five days a week at the gym learning these techniques. That’s how you survive, that’s how you create yourself. Darren is all of that. He’s also working on his acting. To me, his performance in The Package was so head and shoulders above what he did for me in Alien Agent, which I thought was good at the time. That just confirms that he’s someone to watch. Jerry Trimble is the same way. I’ve probably done four or five films with Jerry. I’ve worked with him as a stuntman in probably eight or nine movies. He’s just a phenomenal human being with a broad scope of knowledge of humanity. This is a guy who’s lived more lives than more people can hope to live. From “The Golden Boy” to being in Roger Corman pictures, to motivational speaker, and now working as a Hollywood stuntman. Most people would be happy to have one of those. I love him. I think he’s fantastic.
It’s so cool that you put him in front of the camera in a big way in The Package. He hadn’t done an action-type role in years.
He’s great, he’s terrific.
Talk about the personas of some of the guys you’ve worked with. They carry with them their reputations from their glory days as action stars.
I come from a stunt background where I’ve dealt with a lot of champions, fight guys, motorcycle guys, guys who are at the very top of their game. You talk to a champion a little differently than with how you talk to a normal human being. They love being treated like normal people right up to the moment where you actually treat them like a normal human being. There’s a certain amount of deference, but also a sense of simpatico in that they know what I’ve done before as well, so I can at least pretend that I can come close to what they’ve done. They’re type “A” personalities. It takes a certain amount of energy to deal with them. If you engage these guys and look them in the eyes and talk to them … with Steve [Austin], I’d watched his earlier movies and I honestly couldn’t get through most of them, and so when I sat with him on the set [of The Package], he’d been really working on the character, and I sat with him quietly, and I asked him, “What was the deal with the other movies? Because what you’re doing here is acting, and when I watched your other movies I didn’t see the Steve I’m seeing here.” He said, “Yes, you’ve got no idea. They didn’t even talk to me. They put me in a position where the tape was on the floor and then kind of walked off and left me to do my thing.” The only thing that he could work out was that perhaps they were intimidated or scared by him. The movies were incomprehensible.
He’s untapped potential as far as I’m concerned.
That’s exactly what I felt, and it made me happy when I thought about it a little more. He’s got incredible charm and an incredible sense of humor. It’s very rangy, it’s very distinct to south Texas, and he’s a little nervous of it when he’s around people who are ostensibly more educated or whatever. In actual fact, he’s twice as smart as they are, and once you bring that out, it’s a very sharp wit and very interesting. Most of the cool lines in The Package weren’t in the script. The lines that Steve gave were improv – he came up with those on set. They’re wonderful. No one knows Steve like Steve does. If you’re brave enough to kind of talk to him and engage him and find a common ground with him and a character and make him aware of that, you get a pretty cool performance. I’m really looking forward to working with him again. I think we can really do some stuff together. His first professional fight, he got paid forty bucks. I mean, these guys beat the shit out of each other. Pound for pound. They’re performing like gladiators. Ground-pounding and smacking. It’s not your grandma’s sport. He would also engage the audience. He would play the bad guy. Those guys know how to perform. If you can tap into that and bring it into the forefront, you’re gonna have something really good. As you said, he’s got so much untapped potential.
Talk about Alien Agent with Mark Dacascos.
I did two for SyFy: The Last Sentinel and Alien Agent. There were certain things that were required of them like monsters … I dunno … I would love to work with Mark again. I worked my balls off on that script. The only thing they let me touch was the action. They would not let me touch the dialogue. There’s way too much dialogue in it. You don’t need action stars talking about their inner self. Especially with someone who’s as good an actor as Mark Dacascos is. He can do that page of dialogue with a look over and a look back, and the audience feels it. We had a very overwritten script in terms of dialogue. The producer on set literally made sure that all of the dialogue was being said as it was written. If we deviated from that, there were glances and “Well, this isn’t what you were signed on for …” I rewrote the action, and I think we had some fun action in it. But action without story is nothing. It’s pornography. It’s action for the sake of action; it’s the worst thing in the whole world. When you talk to film buffs and talk about the best action sequences, they’ll say Shane for the gunfight, and all of those films were an hour and fifteen minutes of character development and then an action scene. You feel the jeopardy that they’re in. You feel the excitement when they overcome. That’s why that action scene worked so beautifully. Anyway, I loved working with Mark and I loved working with Billy Zane in Alien Agent. We worked very hard together on a very short schedule. The films were not personal for me at this point. They didn’t get personal until The Butcher, which if there is ever a film I would like to go back and remake, it would be The Butcher. We did that film in such a hurry. I sat down with Eric Roberts and we went through the script with a red pencil and took out huge chunks of the movie because we didn’t have the time to do it all, which was very sad for me. That was my homage to the 70’s action movies like Point Blank.
Have you gotten any feedback from the fans of some of the action stars you’ve worked with?
I’ve gotten an enormous amount of feedback. I open a Facebook page, and I literally have to take all of my personal stuff off because the page becomes a sounding board for my movies.
2013 has been a really bad year for action stars and their movies. Big action guys like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Statham have all had flops this year. Why do you think that is?
It’s not just this year. You’re talking about an audience who at one time had nothing else but VHS action movies or DVDs to have a look at, but there are now beautifully designed and wonderfully animated videogames, and you’re competing with these things. And the audience has stopped going to movie theaters. There’s no need. Why should someone pay to see someone blow things up when you can be immersed in a first-person shooter at home? Especially if the movie’s story is not that good. The big and dumb movies are done. At one point, these guys filled theaters. But now their audience is playing videogames. The only way you’re going to get them back into the theater … it’s not that they don’t like movie theaters – they’ll go wherever it’s good. The only way to get them back in is to raise the level and the quality of the movie. There has to be some level of involvement with the action that makes the film that much more exciting. That’s my theory why movie theaters are being taken over by the Twilight-type movies. Pictures like The Package are a hell of a lot of fun. It’s made money for the guys who produced it, so it’s found its market. But it’s an ever- decreasing circle.
Is there anything else you want to add about any of your movies?
Well, I hope people enjoyed The Package. In terms of it being a complete movie, I really do enjoy it. If anyone wants to know me through my work, I highly recommend watching it. But the next one is going to be even better.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.