A chat with accomplished stuntman and director Jesse V. Johnson

I’m pleased to announce that I recently had the chance to chat with Jesse V. Johnson, a veteran stuntman who also has some films of his own that he has directed, which are excellent. He has done an unbelievable amount of stunt work, including Total Recall, Mars Attacks, Starship Troopers, The Thin Red Line, Point Blank, Mercury Rising, Charlie’s Angels, Planet Of The Apes, Terminator 3, War Of The Worlds, Beowulf, Avatar, Thor, The Adventures Of Tintin, The Master, Lincoln, The Amazing Spider Man, and so may more. He has directed his own projects including The Butcher, The Package and Charlie Valentine. I’m very pleased to have been able to speak with him in the interview below.

Nate: What were some of your favourite movies and directors growing up who inspired you to get into the world of stunts, and eventually directing your own films?
Jesse: I loved the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, particularly the Good the Bad and The Ugly, which I would attempt to replicate on video with school friends, shot for shot, word for word. I loved Ray Harrihausen, and the Hammer Horror movies. When I started to get a handle on filmmakers and the Director as an author, I discovered the French New Wave, and Truffaut, Godard and Melville were huge for me, it was like this world that was opening up through film, and utterly intoxicating.

My uncle was a stunt Coordinator, Vic Armstrong, and was always very encouraging, we shot my films on his land, and he loaned me my first video camera, gave me my first assisting job and basically always offered pragmatic and down to Earth advice, this is very important for a beginner. There is a way to get what you want, but this is what it’s going to take – never no, never you cannot do that, I owe him a huge amount.

When my directing career was derailed by the 2008 hedge fund implosion, it was Vic who hired me back as a stuntman on Thor, I would have lost my short otherwise.

Working with Brannagh on Thor, Spielberg on Lincoln and PT Anderson on the Master for that period actually served to reinvigorate my directing drive, an although i was desperately panicked at the time, in retrospect it was a great privilege a directing master class.
Nate: Before getting into the industry, what other lines of work did you find yourself in? How did they lead into the film business, or was it a conscious choice to pursue movies?
I was a rough and tumble kid, I thought I was going to be a commando, I was a cadet and then took the Marine PRC at Limpstone, thankfully, Vic, my uncle, suggested stunts might be a wiser way to spend my energy. I worked on Total Recall with him in Mexico City, I was 16 and doing stunts with Arnold, I was a bit disappointed when they gave me my per diem envelope, it was only a few hundred for the week, I thought that was the pay-check – later I learned it was your living expenses and that there was a far more significant check coming, that was when my whole out look changed, and the Queen lost this potential commando.

Your goals are confused when you’re young, I look back and think, yup, always wanted to direct, but I found an old diary of mine and realized in fact I was far less focused for quite a few years than I would like to admit, travelling the world working with horses in Spain, exploring Europe as a painter or writer, mountain climbing, gold smuggling, were all occupations I tried my hand at or seriously explored.
Nate: How did you initially get into stunt work- did you pursue it or was it something that kind of just fell into your path, by chance or perhaps as a Segway from another part of your life?
Jesse: I was an Assistant Director for some time, under the vague misunderstanding, that that was a path to becoming a director, I worked with a brilliant AD team, for a few films, or at least they put up with me, Shawshank Redemption, Mr. Hollands Opus and Mortal Kombat, doing big crowd scenes and having a wonderful time, but being the non-DGA PA, on the shows, my pay-check was dismally small, and the hours very long, that along with the fact that an AD is more likely to become a producer than a director, caused me to look elsewhere. I headed back to the wonderful, creative and exciting work of stunts. A world which remains my default position between directing gigs, allowing me the financial ability to turn down poor directing offers and enjoy my life as a father of two demanding daughters, lol.
Nate: How was it for you transitioning from doing stunt work into directing and writing- the physical work of throwing oneself into a very technical scene, to, the very cerebral, intuitive process of overseeing your own vision brought to the screen?
Jesse: I think the best stunt men have an innate ability to direct, then two careers require use of the same cerebral territory, you’re making people feel safe, guiding a scene, respecting the characters, plot contrivances and continuity while building exciting moments for your audience.

Defining directing beyond that is entering the world of the vague and mystical.
Nate: The Butcher- I read somewhere that you were underwhelmed with the result of the process (I think it’s a terrific, slow burning noir, very well done). Roberts, Davi, Ironside, David, Woodbine etc, you assembled an absolute dream cast. How did the process differ from the result, was it a good experience in production, do you still revisit it, and does your opinion of your own films change over time, or remain the same?
Jesse: I directed a film for Don The Dragon Wilson, their director had stepped away at the last moment, and they called me in, we did a little action film for the Sci Fi channel that ended up being enormously successful financially speaking, for the producers.

They came to me and said, we love gangster movies. I had been shopping the Butcher script for a while, in fact it had heat on it, and it went into production very smoothly and quickly.

We had a hell of a time casting it, and had to rush to meet a fantasy deadline, that really in the grand scheme of things should never have forced our hand, instead we found ourselves hiring a lead actor who hadn’t and didn’t ever learn or I suspect even read the script all the way through.

This was a film written as a “tour de force” for an actor, a huge flamboyant character arc and enormous emotional moments – it was pretty much ALL lost, and I did my best with what I had. We had one of those red pencil meetings where you cross out huge sections of dialogue, knowing you’ll never get anywhere near what you need.

Basically settling for sentences that could fit on the back of post-it stickers hidden off-camera.

I was sickened, exhausted and disillusioned by the process, and threw myself in the action sequences trying to at least do something there that was a little special, but without the character development or story – action, shoot-outs in this case, might as well be gonzo pornography, it’s service to the story line is so blurred, it becomes the reason, instead of supporting the reason.

Yeah – I may resurrect that script and make it as it was in written originally –
Nate: Charlie Valentine (My personal favourite of your films, a knockout). Once again you assemble an unbelievable cast: Raymond J. Barry, Tom Berenger, James Russo, Keith David, Steven Bauer etc. How was your experience with this one? It almost has a rat pack like flavour to it, an old world gangster aesthetic that’s very nice to see. In watching these two films I’ve often though of you as a Walter Hill type, with your violent set pieces and broad, thrilling characterizations.
Jesse: I enjoyed making Charlie Valentine, the budget was too low, I think we had an incident where the IATSE – the trade union for film crews, showed up on set to attempt to turn the film union, basically upping everyones wage and incurring fringe payments, when they realized how little we were making the film for they left, and didn’t call again.

We found a shooting location, a furniture warehouse, that serviced the entire script except for the one day in the desert, and shot it for almost nothing, the producer and I had to fly to S.Carolina to screen the film for Beringer, as he didn’t believe it would be worth anything, for the money we were spending, he enjoyed the film, and gave his thumbs up to us using his name in advertising.

It was pretty unique watching the film with just the three of us in a hotel room.

The film was my love letter to Jean Pierre Melville, I really enjoyed making it, and spent more time with the actors than ever before, discussing the scenes, rehearsing, breathing life into the dialogue, it was a wonderful epiphany for me.

Thank you for the compliment about Walter Hill, he is a favorite of mine.
Nate: Do you have any upcoming projects you are excited about and would like to mention?

Jesse: I would love to send people to the Face Book page for my film, The Beautiful Ones, and to see that when it comes out, it is a cool film with some wonderful performances in it – basically my take on Romeo and Juliet, except these two don’t kill each other at the end, they kill their two warring families – although that is really not what it is about, at all. It’s a black and white about a criminal who thinks he’s Steve McQueen, but that doesn’t do it justice either.

Nate: I will be sure to check that out! Thank you so much for your time, Jesse, and best of luck with all your work and projects in the future.

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