We spoke with Jesse V. Johnson, a british stuntman and director of movies like “Pit Fighter”, “The Package” or “Alien Agent”. Enjoy!
The life of Jesse V. Johnson
At first, please tell us something about your life so far. What do the people have to know about you and your life before you made movies. Also we are interested in your hobbies and your life beside the movie industry.
Hi there, I am a filmmaker who for some time has paid for his expensive habit by performing stunts on big movies. As a young man I was more cerebral, and enjoyed painting, reading and watching foreign movies. So, regardless of the fact that my uncle’s were very well established as stunt coordinators at that time – it was certainly not a predestined career move for me. It was just that I tried my hand at being a production designer (five Playboy movies), I tried the assistant director path (Shawshank/Mr. Hollands Opus) and effects person, those jobs just did not pay as well or were nearly as much fun as performing stunts.
When I did settle into stunts, it was very comfortable, I realized my slightly different way of looking at things was useful, it allowed me to communicate with director’s and actors very well, it has been a wonderful career, I have been incredibly lucky. I started directing and getting paid around 2005 or 06, it was not very good money so I always had to bounce backwards and forwards.
Then there was an economic collapse in 2008 and three really brilliant and exciting projects collapsed over night leaving me broke – Thanks to my family and dear friend, and coordinator par excellence, Garrett Warren, I managed to work for a couple of years with James Cameron (Avatar), Kenneth Branagh (Thor), P.T. Anderson (The Master) and Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) – it was like a master class of sorts. It really affected my presumptions about filmmaking and came at a great time for me, learning and growth wise, however at the time I was desperately scared that I’d never direct again, lol.
I love movies, but I get bored very quickly, my wife hates that I will walk out of a film, I have no patience, if it doesn’t work, I’m gone life is too short. But I will watch and rematch my favorites. I had a terrible formal education, so my avid collecting of books, movies and artwork from around the world has been my education. I read Hemingway, Steinbeck and Conrad feverishly in my teens and it affected my take on story-telling.
I loved the martial arts as a rebellious teen, and thought for the longest time I was going to join the commandos, and that would be that. I owe my film career to one particularly unfair Sergeant, who embittered me against the institution of professional soldiering, and thankfully allowed me to realize that it’s just a lot more fun directing a battle scene than actually being in one.
That Sergeant’s name was Valentine, I used this as the inspiration for Charlie Valentine, many years later. I always find it interesting when a sadistic bastard of a human has a romantic, classical moniker.
I tend to collect things, interesting things that might inspire me in my office, or kick an idea into being, trigger my imagination. I’m lucky enough to travel quite a bit, so it’s a bit of distraction to find souvenirs. I found a hundred year old oil painting at the location that we shot Dolph’s shootout in, up in Canada, on The Package.
It was painted by a very interesting artist, Aimes Morot, I knew his work from the Louvre, The Good Samaritan – this piece I found was a very, very violent battle scene, between the Turks and the French, I think this was the battle that inspired the Croissant, a take on the Islamic Crescent imagery. A horrific piece, but perfect for me, it was very difficult to get out of the country, but now hangs in my office.
My love is being on set, I am not like my hero, Lean, or my other idol, Hitchcock, whom both looked forward to the editing room.
My aim at this time, and it will change of course, is to take actors, or subject matter, that the mainstream once loved but have now passed over, maligned, written off, and then use everything in my power to resurrect, or reinvent them.
Jesse and the movies
How did you get your first job in the movie industry?
My first job was at fourteen carrying Vic Armstrong’s stunt bag on the Last Crusade. It was wonderful, but I was still at high-school. My first paying job was at a company called Bapty and Co, that provided firearms and weapons to movies, I was a teenager obsessed with guns, ancient and modern (this hasn’t changed at all, I’m ashamed to say), and this was a great way to get my head around that obsession. They had me cleaning their warehouse sized loft for a month, it hadn’t been touched since the 1950’s – but it was a good way to learn about discipline, and the fact I didn’t like that too much.
I wiggled out of that around fifteen years old, as I did high-school, and went to work for my family again, storyboarding stunt sequences, this I loved, it was direct access to the creativity behind the lens – I still remember the camera direction from the first set of boards I drew; the director was using language I’d never heard before, rostrum shot, dolly, crane up, pan and tilt – it was like some Gothic romantic language, and I wanted to learn it so badly.
Then I decided I wanted to be on set again, and tried the PA, floor runner thing at Pinewood, really only learned that to get out of making tea and coffee you made sure the first cup was just awful, cold, weak, and revolting, and you were never asked again. All through this I was making and writing my own movies, blindly, garbage mostly, but for me, my strength is my hard headedness, my weakness; my hard headedness. I kept working away at my projects but wouldn’t listen to much advice. The best advice I ever got was to stop using my friends as actors and to audition professionals, I am still having trouble following this though.
For what reasons did you stay in the business?
I have tried almost every terrible job imaginable, I left school way too young, so basically have no academic qualifications, the army was a dead-end, and when film work was not available, the only alternative was cleaning gutters, or building warehouses, it was horrific. This was my time doing what my immediate family called “real jobs” – I have avoided them like venereal disease ever since.
The abject fear of having to do those jobs for the rest of your life, that was motivation to do something. I also love movies, and am passionate about studying them and watching them. for me there is little else that holds the thrill, excitement, pure joy and palpable love that making a movie does. It is a powerful elixir and it is my mistress.
How did you become a director?
Directing is an extension of playing games as a child, you must never lose that youthful joy with the process, it is everything. In a scene that seems bleak and troubled and is falling apart, that sudden spark of excitement that can cause an original idea to ferment is wonderful, I love it, it keeps me young. Get jaded, or cynical and it goes away.
I was always the director when I played as a child, when I drew comic-books, when I put on plays, when I assembled my class mates and shot my bloody version of Macbeth with a Betamax camera.
I was first paid to direct just terrible music videos for British TV – God awful bands, bless them, there wasn’t much youcould do with the video.
Then Pitfighter, which I then folded my fee back into, lol. I was desperate by that stage, I had storyboarded, designed costumes, scouted, I had signed deals for it at five different companies, saying I could do it for less than a $100K, when it finally got green lit, I had to carefully negotiate myself out of all those other entanglements.
Regent Entertainment backed it, the largest gay TV network, they originally wanted the Pitfighter character to be gay, too – instead of a girl make it a boy, it’s just a tiny change? Of course I contemplated this too, as I just wanted to get to work, Dominiquie wasn’t so sure, though.
Eventually the gay element was taken off the table, and we made the movie, in 13 days in the British Caribbean doubling for Mexico, lol.
The film is almost unwatchable now, it initially turned out OK, but the peanut gallery started reediting it, playing games, trying to spruce it up – it’s a mess – but somehow, it did well for Fox, and actually got me my next two gigs, go figure!
The first time I felt I knew something about directing actors was Charlie Valentine, I started to love them, I realized it was because I was coming straight from having acted (stunt-acted, lol) in a few pictures, and that fear, that pressure was very real in my memory, remembering that can help a lot when talking to an actor. Sometimes just noticing, recognizing what they’re doing, how they changed their inflection or body language can be enough. They start to trust you and then it get’s exciting – you start taking risks together, jamming, how I imagine jazz players feel, butterflies, as the ideas burst, and you listen and they’re good Goddamit.
What fascinates you about directing movies?
Everything, it is an adventure, sometimes literally, often times just creatively.
Whether it’s trying to complete the Rubic’s cube like problems of shooting a complex action sequence in a short period, or experimenting with a character, and stripping away dialogue in favor of an actor using his expressions, body language.
The happy accidents that everyone congratulates you on, that you had nothing to do with, at all.
The wonderful feeling of being at the head of a team of enormously creative individuals, all looking at smaller details of your great puzzle and helping you, guiding you. It is a magnificent occupation. The privilege is such that I am still without fail, sick to my stomach and unable to eat or sleep the night before a shoot. It never fails, no matter the size of the shoot. You tumble the shot list back and forth, visualize every single problem that could arise, you’re fired on the first set up, the actor is sent to hospital, none of the crew turn up. You’ve got it all wrong with the script, you’ve totally ballsed it up, lol. It’s all good though, because as your brain feverishly runs through all these problems, you come up with solutions, ideas that you hadn’t expected. There is NOTHING like desperation and sheer panic to get the imagination working!
Which of your movies would you call your best one? Is there any film where not everything did pan out?
Ha ha – My problem was I said yes to EVERYTHING I was offered. I thought very little of my “name” or talent in fact, and felt it would be fine just to do everything – I’m anonymous.
Later I realized a little more care in choosing projects might have helped later on. We are judged by the crap, not the cream.
Mifune said; as filmmakers we’re like Goldfish, when we shit, it drags behind us for everyone to see.
Rather than delve into the less happy affairs, for risk of upsetting my collaborators and saboteurs, lol – I will take 100% of the blame for those ones by the way, as a director you always must. If the film was taken away and reedited it was my fault for not being more machiavellian, more diplomatic, and losing control. If the leading actor was difficult, I should have seen that pot-hole coming, it was my fault and I have only myself to blame.
I tried very, very hard on all of them, and learned a tremendous amount. in fact I very likely learned more on the negative experiences than on the ones that turned out well, and everyone was smiling. I like Charlie Valentine, I really quite enjoyed watching The Package on the big screen, I haven’t seen it on the small screen yet. The one I like that is most polarizing is Green Street 2 – it was just a terrible set-up with a painful script. I was pitifully broke after Charlie Valentine and signed to direct GS2 with a weeks prep time, but I had so much fun with the cast, rewriting and reworking it, we really brought it such a long way from where it started. It was likely not enough of a transformation, but, I have a special spot for that one, it works for me on a visceral fantastical level. It has some big fans in the UK, I am rather skeptical and suspicious of them, though, lol. I wouldn’t have them over for afternoon tea.
“The 5th Commandment” is the only of your movies that got a theatrical release in Germany. It also seems to have gotten bigger releases around the world than your other movies. Did you see it as a step back that the following ones didn’t get the same attention?
No – not at all – I have very little idea what following my films have around the world. I didn’t know that film got a theatrical. “The Package” got a limited release here, and it was thrilling, I thought it was my first, I am sort of disappointed that it wasn’t.
I had zero involvement with The 5th Commandment’s release. After nearly killing myself directing, it was physically one of the most difficult experiences of my career. The lead actor and I parted ways during the editing. I went and coordinated Beowulf for Zemeckis and licked my wounds. Every shot, angle, in the film was mine except for some second unit of Bangkok street scenes at night. Many of the scenes with Keith David were written by me, and then to see the direction it went in editorial was heart breaking. I have seen it once, at a private screening and my stomach tied itself in a knot, I actually would have vomited afterward had I eaten anything – a good way to get rid of me is to bring that film up, lol. In fact my stomach just knotted again.
Which movies do you like?
I feel I have over watched all my favorites, I will go on a bender with a favorite director, everything Melville directed, over and over, buying LP’s of the soundtracks, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Godard. I love the Criterion collection, love watching the extras on the DVD’s.
Fell in love again with Paul Schader’s Mishima. Wong Kar Wei, anything by Chan Wook Park. I am loving the Korean action movies, A Bittersweet Life, God what a terrific film, I was angry afterward that I didn’t make it, it was how I wanted the Butcher to be, exactly that tone and pace – I screwed that one, though, rushed preproduction, then took a bonus payment to finish it quickly, fucked myself.
Eric Roberts was great, but he had no time to learn the character, and he relied on his stock trade reactions, sliced pages of dialogue, really a heartbreaker, that one – I’ll redo the script, someday – you’ll never recognize it and no one remembers The Butcher anyway.
I also loved The man from Nowhere, used the knife fight as a basis for our face off in “The Beautiful Ones” – Brian Tee and Ross McCall do GREAT with it.
Who is your favourite director? Is there any idol for you?
I have most books on Sam Peckinpah, a tragic, misspent career, littered with flawed masterpieces, like the scene at the beginning of the Wild Bunch, scattered in the dirt. What’s fascinating is that there was still enough genius on display for people to pick up on it. Then David Lean, of course.
Living, it would have to be P.T. Anderson, even more so after working for him. Spielberg as a brave, risk taker is beyond compare for me. Everyone presumes it’s easy for him, but the risks he’s taking, especially lately, wonderful stuff, we’re lucky to have them, in Japan they would be national treasures, here we look for the best way to bring them down at every opportunity.
What are your favourite action movies?
Lawrence of Arabia, The Seven Samurai, Samurai Rebellion.
Martial Arts-wise, Sanshiro Sugata, the very best tournament movie ever. The Man who shot Liberty Valance, over The Searchers.
The above Korean pictures. I liked the Raid, Snatch, I thought Sherlock Holmes was genius, wrapped up like a commercial movie, lol, I’m a sap. I loved Django – as much as I didn’t like Inglorious Basterds, except the opening scene.
We are entering a new era for action movies, big and dumb just doesn’t cut it, it never did for me anyway, the guys who did like those movies are playing on their computers now, they have too many distractions, realistic games, trolling gamer fan-forums, they don’t need those big gun, small story, films anymore, the box-office reflects this. If you want to make action movies that are bigger than D2DVD, we have to be smart, intelligent, give people something they can’t get at home, it’s a challenging time – but what a challenge!
Jesse V. Johnson and his movie “The Package”
How was it to work with Dolph Lundgren and Steve Austin? How did they interact on the set and in private life? What kind of guys are they?
I loved every second of working with them, I didn’t know a lot about Steve ahead of time, I had only seen The Expendables, and thought he was very convincing there. DL I’ve loved since Rocky, of course, and I had worked with him on Joshua Tree, twenty years ago, although I didn’t bring that up and it was never mentioned. They were both incredibly professional, quiet and ready to go.
Very different men, with different personalities and sensibilities, but great to work with and funny too, both have great humor and warmth. They are not testosterone junkies, or “tough guys”, although they both are extraordinarily tough. Steve spends his off time antique hunting and DL enjoys restaurants and cuisine. Just a great time for me, a real honor working with them. I learned a lot from both of them. DL knew how he best acted, looked and could move, made my life very easy. Steve when coaxed and allowed to is one of the best improvisors I have ever worked with, thirty years of shit-talking in wrestling and playing to an often aggressive crowd, has honed that to a fine edge, he is just great!
How easy or hard is it to finance new projects such as „The Package“?
It was an assignment, the script, location, crew and cast were there before me, lol. I think I may have replaced someone, which I have done many times. It’s business, and I am philosophical about it – whoever it was was long gone anyway – it happens both ways, I am just careful and never speak ill of another director, it’s rough enough without that. I gather it’s tougher than ever to finance action films at the D2DVd level. the stars want more than they’re worth, the pictures cost more than they make – they’ve been saying the same thing since the 1920’s, lol.
How come that the only one of your regulars in „The Package“ is Jerry Trimble?
Darren Shahlavi and Monique Ganderton both worked with me before. But, ostensibly it’s because Canada offers rebates that are based upon the local crew hired, so when you import cast or crew you lose a percentage of those rebates. I had to hire Canadians, and Jerry Trimble is a Canadian/US citizen.
You also work as a stunt performer and coordinator on big budget projects such as „The Amazing Spider-Man“. What are the major differences between working on such a project and films such as “The Package”?
Rehearsal time is the major difference. months on a big movie as opposed to days on The Package – that REALLY sucks, and in LA I demand it of my crew, I couldn’t demand anything in Canada as I was a guest there, within a pre-orchestrated infrastructure. The crew were awesome, but it was their full time job, my three week film represented one in many, and asking them to rehearse for free, would take them away from a paying gig. They did great regardless. But it was frustrating for me. Everything else is very similar, except smaller, lol.
Would you like to direct a movie with a budget similar to „The Amazing Spider-Man“?
Like many of your movies “The Package” has an interesting soundtrack. To what extent do you have an influence on the soundtracks and do “your” soundtracks reflect your own taste in music?
I had 100% control over the soundtrack which was great, The Soul of John Black is managed by a friend, they were awesome about us using his music. Sean Murray wrote the score, which I love, his Tommy theme elevated the movie for me, as only the best music is able to. The classical was great, I had purchased the rights to those pieces on Charlie Valentine, and we had them from the editorial stage, however there was a hitch at the 11th hour, with some of the contractual material that Anchor Bay needed, and I was told to find other music, I was heart broken, but I contacted the owner of music licensing company, a stock company and explained the situation and in an incredible act of generosity he sent over a new contract, a one off.
Is there any scene in “The Package“ of which you are especially proud? Is there any you would have liked to have shot more often/done more takes on?
I do like the end scene with Tommy and Big Doug in the Irish Bar, when he rushes the table, knocks it out of the way, and then just listens. I like the tempo change, and think Steve is strongest here, when he is a dynamic threat, without having to overemphasize it.
As to doing more takes, I would love to have had another day or two with that end show down, I had so many ideas, but we got cramped into one afternoon, as is often the case. The opening of the movie was shot by the operator, who was awesome, my DP had a kidney stone (first scene, first day) and had to go home, it was an inauspicious start – but it got better. I think Kim Miles, who is phenomenal, would have done a few things with that opening that would have set it apart – c’est la vie.
All of the action on The Package was filmed extraordinarily quickly, it’s difficult and hair raising, and you really should take more time, but this is a line of work, that if you start missing your days, dropping behind, well, they replace you – you come into work and there is your replacement! It’s a lot less forgiving than people think, especially for the unknown director like me – these innocent half wits who review films, ask why did they do this or that, bless their souls, for thinking we had any control at all over many of those elements!
It can be a roller coaster, as I said it is often a thrilling adventure being in the director’s seat, it can be exhilarating and devastatingly disappointing.
A look in the future
What will be your next project?
I have a film a month offered for the next four months, and two full scale studio offerings, but that is today, which was a very good day, I am saying yes to everything again, and we shall see which ones take hold, and flourish and which ones vaporize into the ether.
How is the resonance to your “Wonder Woman” trailer?
It has been a little overwhelming, I have enjoyed it immensely, it is slowing now, but it was bewildering for a couple of days. The fall out has been wonderful, many, many, many meetings, the people I have been trying to see for years have been calling, love it.
Do you think that you might be able to shoot a feature and maybe major movie based on that trailer?
I really don’t know.
Is there any dream project that you would wish to do, but have to get sufficient funding first?
Yes – I wrote my version of the 1066 story, three great men, two battles, and one king left at the end. But, my story focuses on an often overlooked aspect of the epic – it is a love story at it’s heart, my script took over ten years to write and research – behind every great man is an even greater woman.
Then also my Larry Thorne, inspired 1960’s Vietnam story, another large scale piece, sort of the Magnificent Seven in Laos. Very character driven, but with an enormous third act, so much fun, it has almost gone two or three times.
Could you imagine doing a film like “Expendables 3“, but not with people like Sly, instead with action stars of the lower budget class? A sort of B-version of “Expendables 3” with people such as Jeff Speakman, Don Wilson, Olivier Gruner, Mark Dacascis, Cynthia Rothrock, Richard Norton, Michael Dudikoff, Lorenzo Lamas… ?
No, not for me – my career is going in a little different direction. That is one for someone in their 20’s all piss and vinegar, who thinks he can win any fight, make any project great. I was like that once, when I was in my twenties. I am a little more realistic now.
Before we end, do you want to say something to our readers?
If they have made it this far, I have the deepest respect for them, and wish them well, and hope that my films continue to get better, which is how I feel they are going, each one a little better than the last.
Thank you for this interview and good luck for your further career!