Sunday, November 9, 2014


Alright, black and white and holding a big gun makes up for a picture of him not covered in blood, right? 

If you've seen pretty much any big name action movie, today, you've seen one aspect of this next cat's work. Don't believe me? Check out his imdb page. Jesse is kind of a beast on the action scene, but that's exactly why he is super fit to be directing some of the coolest movies you haven't been paying attention to. Don't worry, I ain't gonna get up on my direct-to-video action soap box in this introduction.

I will, however, put on my carnival barker hat and tell you that you can totally pick up a lot of his flicks on Amazon. I recommend The Pit Fighter which has some really good, visceral fight scenes. You can see the trailer here. Now, if you want more guns and a lot more cool, you absolutely owe it to yourself to give Charlie Valentine a look. Just check out this trailer.

If that doesn't whet your appetite, check out anything else in that Amazon link. Or everything in this Amazon link. Get the joke? It's a fan trailer for a really cool Wonder Woman spec film!

Currently on the horizon is The Beautiful Ones. The trailer, naturally, is behind this link. For any other news on Jesse, keep up with him on his personal site.

Let's get into this, shall we?

Okay, I gotta get this one out of the way, right off  the bat because the internet has you listed as a third assistant director for The Shawshank Redemption, and if I don't take the opportunity now, before I get into the heart of the interview, I'll forever kick myself. Is there anything you can really say about being tangentially attached to a movie like that? Anything about the experience that really pops? 

Thank you for asking, yes, I had a wonderful time working on that film.  When I first came to the US I worked as an assistant director, and PA, with a very fine group of AD’s, we were lucky to do a few really exciting pictures together.  

The experience of working at that incredible prison (Mansfield State Penitentiary), which was on the grounds of the current Mansfield high security prison was quite invigorating for a young man with an over-active imagination - I was often tasked with directing (setting) the background, getting into wardrobe as a prisoner and doing crowd control and setting up bits of action for the prisoners to perform.  

I’d rate them, and keep working with the ones who understood what was expected.  None had ever been on a movie set before, and there were ex-prisoners who had been recruited from half-way houses and rehabilitation centers mixed in with local drama teachers and re-enactors who had responded to the casting call.  

It was really quite challenging and rewarding - the biggest day was the Prison introduction helicopter shot, we had 2500 extras and they all had to look like they had business and had to be timed and rehearsed, the shot was a few minutes so it mustn't become stagnant.  It was great fun coming up with it all.

The stories the ex-convicts told would make your hair curl, I filled a couple of notebooks with notes, and have often referred back to the experience when writing those type of characters.

I've noticed in this new wave of action directors that have taken the direct to video/independent/made for TV scene and really made it something to take note of, a lot of them have experience as stunt performers. Does it feel like a natural progression from coordinating stunts to directing an entire film? Was that always your goal?

Well, we’re experienced with running a set, making an actor feel safe and thinking on our toes - I’d say it was the perfect place to find a director. We’re also used to working with a budget and interfacing with the production team, with regard to schedule and the nuts and bolts of the production machine.

Do we have an eye and an ear for the overall flow of a scene, the realism of a performance, the tools to elicit a breath taking performance from a psychologically unsound prima-donna? Well that can only be gauged on a one by one basis.

Some second unit directors make lousy first unit directors, they’re so used to copying the style and leaving the difficult artistic decisions to the boss, when they get their shot, it feels watered down and dull - others excel, and show a truly unique voice. I was a short film director and had had a top 20 music video as a director before I performed my first stunt - I love stunts, but they are and always have been, a way to grow and survive between directing gigs.

I will not direct second unit again - I don’t want to give that away to another director.  The last second unit I did, I was paid my rate (DGA minimum), but had no perks, was talked to like a punk and only allowed to shoot on their B camera for an hour a day at the end of the shooting day - it was ridiculous - I sat around on set waiting all day. 

The executive producers brought the sales-teaser to set to show as an addaboy for the crew as they had just sold the international rights to the movie based on the teaser, it was a sort of “pep-session," they were so pleased with themselves, when they showed it, here you go look what you all did! It was 5 minutes of action footage, all of my footage with about eight seconds of first unit, not a single member of the crew watching had even seen the shots filmed!

No, I’m done with making someone else look good and perpetuating their career.  Life is too short. 

That experience was the genesis for The Beautiful Ones. I know people with money, I know quite a few of them, I’ve made a lot of money for investors over the years, so I contacted the money guys directly and pitched them my ideas. They said yes, and just like that, I no longer have those suits/wannabes working as in-betweens, which is all most of them are. I am my own boss.
It is glorious!  

I have directed some of the shittiest, most awful scripts, for these so called middle-men “executive producers," desperately trying to fix their damaged work, up to the hour of shooting.  Then cutting the film based upon their guess work and hearsay.  These guys who have the power to alter your career your livelihood, the guys who have hired you and then don’t allow you to make a good movie.
When you sit down and chat with them, you realize they don’t really even like movies, they’re more interested in TV drama, or documentaries.  There is no passion, no love of cinema - they’re not collaborators, they’re using you to direct traffic on time on schedule, so they can get their next assignment.

No, it has been a delight not to have to filter my ideas through a myriad of faceless opinions.  I hope I get the chance again.

What so few people realize is at the lower end of the budget spectrum, $3 to $5 million, where I have been - the assignment jobs, are drek, you have a three week shoot, a script someone else chose, a cast someone else approved, and a location that offers a financial incentive, then, they go looking for their hired gun director.  Sticking to budget and being pleasant (cheap) is a priority, skill, the ability to make a great movie, that is prioritized in importance on a par with the size of the crafts service table.

How does a directing project originally come to be for you? Are you approached with a cast/script/etc, all ready to go, or are you the one to initiate? 

They must have a list they go through, I don’t really know.  

I am making a marked shift away from this kind of work. If they offer me one and I need the money, who can say, but for now, I am on to a good thing and will hold on with my teeth and nails like it’s my very life I’m fighting for. It is about 98% impossible to make a good film when the production has been put together by an international sales company - the prerequisites that the international sales company require work in direct contradiction to what is needed to make a film original, interesting, unpredictable and fresh.

When I put a script together myself, it is an altogether different experience.  Trying to raise financing is never, ever the same story, and is always difficult and tricky.  But when it works right, you have a chance: Charlie Valentine, The Butcher, The Beautiful Ones.  For me, I stumbled with The Butcher, by acquiescing way more in the creative department than I should have, but I was green, and thought I’d lose the movie if I dug in my heels. I learned a vicious lesson but still feel the film has some personal moments.

A lot of why I dig on the boom in action flicks on home video is it has felt for the longest time, at least to me, that the action pictures you see in the multiplexes have all but forgot how to stage an action scene. It is all frenetic and jumbled, and at least to me, it feels as though the camera is performing the action and not the actors. The flicks coming out from you and Hyams and Florentine, to name a few, they seem to really love and celebrate practical effects and clean fight choreography. Is this a reaction to where modern action flicks are, or is this more of a nature of the beast? Does your stunt  work inform how you will shoot an action scene?

I haven’t seen any of Hyam’s films, and have only seen Isaac’s action scenes, I love and respect Isaac an awful lot.  But our films have nothing in common.

As to my style - No real filmmaker wants to fix it in post, that’s crap, besides our films usually have $18 post production budgets.  If we want it, we need to make sure we get it on the day and the best way to do that is practically - whether it’s an effect or a location - I once did a Sci-Fi film, I was assured we were working with the best VFX company in Canada, there was a huge deal made about them helping me out, they worked for a year on and off, and when I went up to supervise the final stages I was floored!  It was like an Atari video game circa 1987 -- I realized I would have to re-cut the sequences, drop the effects and move on.   That stuff is difficult to do well, these kids who do it on youtube, do it themselves, with after-effects, you can’t get them to do a film in 4K for cheap. We’re better served doing it with a practical gas explosion


Don’t get me started on these awful fake History channel muzzle flashes we’re seeing on TV now, I guess we’re catering to a generation that play video games and have never fired a real gun, there’s no stress on the actors face, no adrenal  investment. But, the producer’s think it’s the greatest thing since sliced-bread, wow, no fire marshal, no gun-fire permit, no cop, no armorer fee, no blanks to purchase -- they’ll argue all day long, then blame you when the film looks like a $2 turkey.

As to the martial arts and fight sequences, we shoot it that way, because most of the time, we enjoy and understand martial arts, as do the performers we are working with.  When you shoot Drew Barrymore, you have to use a stunt double and shoot from behind, and when you shoot her, keep it a long lens and add some kinetic movement to give it energy, she isn't a martial artist, most big name actors are not - so we are accustomed in larger films to see this style used a lot.

With an actual physically gifted fighter, you can drop the camera back. With a director who appreciates that, he can weave the camera around the moves and isn’t afraid that the footage will be useless. I’m not really a fan of martial arts movies, I like a fight or two, but I was in a lot of fights, and martial arts like the kind we see in martial arts movies would get you pronged up and sent to hospital if you used them on the street.

But, I know what you mean.

A lot of the same actors and actresses show up in all of these underground action movies. You have a healthy mix of genre legends like Van Damme and Lundgren, character actors like Keith David and Eric Roberts, as well as former athletes, guys like Steve Austin who are just a natural fit. What's it like to work with guys who live and breathe and inhabit the genre? 

Most of them are hired to fulfill international sales requirements, we -- I -- usually don’t have a say in it, only whether we accept the film as an assignment or not. The actors are often tired and beat up and don’t really want to be there. It can be very hard getting them to be enthusiastic.  When you do, it can be great fun, and you can get a flicker of that old magic -- but, they’re usually there for the check primarily.

This is why I am tired of this sub-genre and doing everything in my power to move away from it.  
Steve Austin was great to work with, and required no special handling whatsoever, I would work with him whenever and wherever he asked. Keith David is a dear friend and a massive talent and just someone I would like to be like, he has the ability to fair tremendously well in a massive $100 million movie and then bring the same level of commitment to a $3 million movie, I have the utmost and deepest respect for him.

Dovetailing off of that last question, is there a feeling of community in that pool of actors and directors that make up this world? Like, does John Hyams call you up for a pool party and the like? Bad example, I know, but you get the gist.

I am friends with Isaac Florentine, I am trying to find something to produce for him. Mike Hurst who is a producer on The Beautiful Ones, helped out immeasurably with the script and the edit, he is a genius to have in the edit room - I chat with William Kaufman on facebook, and have respect for his work.  

The others I don’t know, and am not familiar with their work.  I have worked closer with James Cameron (Avatar), Steven Spielberg (Lincoln, War of the Worlds), PT Anderson (The Master), Kenneth Branagh (Thor) as a stunt man than the guys you mention, and am more influenced by their styles. 

There was one poor director whom I replaced on three films in a row, I ended up taking him to coffee and becoming pals.  But, otherwise, no, it is not a budget level or quality of film I necessarily want to hang my hat on. I rarely watch direct to DVD (unless it’s a foreign title - I love a couple of the Korean action pics that are turning up), or whatever the 21st century equivalent is, and don’t measure my standard by that quality.  

You have set your standards as high as possible.

What, to you, is the most perfect action scene ever filmed?

Two favorites are the first sword fight in The Seven Samurai, the slow motion death scene, and the duel at the end of SanjuroHowever on a different day, I might choose the showdown at the end of The Good the Bad and the Ugly, or the car chase in Bullitt

Recently, I loved the knife fight in Man from Nowhere and adored the shoot out at the end of A Bittersweet Life.

Budget has to always be a nightmare, as it is on a shoot of any size. How has money affected your flicks?

Lack of money has made many of my films far lesser quality than I had planned. I have had to shoot faster, and with fewer moving parts than was intelligent or rational. I have been too ambitious.

Are there any projects you walked away from/couldn't get off the ground that you kick yourself over?

I have at least a dozen projects I tried desperately to get made, sometimes going so far as to have scouted, cast, and started, that then fell through. It is heart breaking but part of the game. You wanna cry and give up, or start over again?

I've had executive producers who got shot on the eve of filming, after hotels were booked, visas arranged, locations scouted.  I've sat in production meetings and watched as the accountants left the building, carrying everything they could, because they learned there was no money coming. I've had executive producers leave set the last day of filming, never to be seen again, all paychecks bouncing.

It’s a brutal game - but when it goes right, when it actually comes together, it’s as close to alchemy as you will ever experience.

You are still very active in stunt work, working on things from the 2001 Planet of the Apes to the Amazing Spider-Man Franchise. Do you find it difficult to switch gears from director to stunt person? 

No. If I spend a year trying to raise financing for a project, I need to pay my bills, and stunt work is a godsend. The people that hire me are angels and I love everyone of them with all the fiber of my soul.
I will hit the ground on a stunt so hard, that the monitor shakes, I like the feeling of committing 100% to the gig, focusing on that minutiae of the world, that moment, that gag, that wire, that harness, that crash pad, and then going for it, when every ounce of reason says "what on Earth do you think you;re doing?" You have this internal fight, which you absolutely must win, or risk delaying the stunt and screwing the shot, which is far worse than getting hurt.

Besides, that stunt adjustment is paying my bills until the financing for my next film kicks in, at which time I’ll do my earnest best to hire those angels who kept me solvent.  It’s an awesome, wonderful magical job, and I love it -- it is also exciting as hell sometimes and mind blowing.

With the big blockbusters, marketing is completely ubiquitous, and seems to cost just as much as the films themselves, if not more. How do you, with out that money compete? What methods do you use to get the word out?

It’s different every time of course. Many times the domestic release of the film is a toss away, the film is aimed for and styled for the international market. They will do an extremely brief US theatrical release -- one theater -- with no press to fulfill the SAG limited exhibition contract -- which allowed them to pay a lower fee to the cast -- and then dump the DVD into Walmart and or cable TV at the same time.   In the international market you may get a better theatrical release, but no one will tell you about it or ask you about it, or even mention your name. 

With a passion project, you try you best to hit the good festivals, not the rubber chicken events -- they do no good whatsoever. In this business there are lot of black-tie events where they slap you on the back and give you some gold plated monkey, and a few souls congratulate you and it all means less than zero in the grand scheme of things.  

There are about eight festivals that mean anything, if you don’t get into one of those, you have to come up with a smart way to market the film. You use every ounce of energy you have, whether it’s a homemade viral campaign or face to face screenings you pay for out of pocket. You get out there and do it.

And, finally, I gotta ask, what's next for Jesse Johnson? I watched the trailer for The Beautiful Ones, and I am hyped to check it out whenever I can, but that can't be the last we hear from you in the director's chair, right? 

I have another spec trailer (fake/fantasy theatrical trailer) coming, we’re cutting now. I did one for Wonder Woman which I enjoyed and which ended up being very useful to me. I got meetings all over town for about a month, meetings I had never been able to get before. It came out the same month as The Package, and got me about 500 times as much press, so other than the pay-check, The Package, actually ended up being of less use to my career than the self financed Wonder Woman trailer.
I will be shooting a third spec trailer, with a new DP, next month - to see how he works out.  
Then I have a feature length picture in the new year which will be epic. And unlike anything I have done before, it is the single most significant film of my career, budget, control and cast-wise, and it is going to be something else. So everything I do right now is serving towards that end goal, including these little spec-trailer shoots.  

I’m testing talent, gear and techniques that are on the horizon for the feature shoot -- it is how I do it. I don’t like experimenting on set, we are too lucky to be there -- it is too difficult to get financing not to be as prepared as is humanly possible.

I don't really have a good closing for this interview. Jesse's a damn whirlwind. Give him your money and attention, because if John Wick taught us anything, these underground stunt cats are just one splash away from dazzling the entire world.

No comments:

Post a Comment