Today we bring you an interview with the amazing Jesse V. Johnson, Writer, Director, Stuntman and Fighting Spirit Patron (Saint). He’s an incredible director and man, who I’ve gotten to learn so much from. Jesse’s film Triple Threat comes out this week in the U.S so for those of you fortunate enough to live in the States, go watch the film.
What are your top three favourite films?
The Seven Samurai (Kurosawa), The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah) and Red River (Hawks.)
When did you know you wanted to become a director?
I was obsessed with films, grew up in a time when VHS recorders were lavish expenses, my single-working-mom couldn't possibly have afforded one. So, I read immense amounts of Movie magazines, this was what you did in those days, Sci-Fi, Horror, 50's and 60's Hollywood film annuals. When we finally got a VHS, I obsessed on The Road Warrior, Fistful of Dollars, Blade Runner wore out the Tapes, I loved comic books and recognised the stylish framing, the interesting angles.
I didn't know enough to know what I wanted to do, other than wanting to work in movies, I left school early, about 14 or 15 years old, and started as a floor-runner, a PA, at Pinewood, I knew very quickly I hated being on the crew and wanted to be the director, I was savvy enough to know that was where the creativity was.
How would you describe your directing style?
I am committed - body and soul to making the finest film I can.
What’s the best career advice you’ve been given?
Don't be afraid to apologise when you're wrong.
I read Elia Kazan said this, and it is an eternal truth.
Could you talk about your evolution as a director from your first film to your current film?
I work very hard to make better films each time around, I am very critical of myself, vicious with my work. I am a lot more careful with casting now, that is 80% of the work of a director. It's a cliche but it's really true - Making films there is always pressure to hire certain people, they're often completely wrong for the project - they can torpedo your film if you're not careful.
I spend more time finding the very best crew to surround me. There was a time I was arrogant and confident enough to think I could take a group of novices and train and teach them to make a film - it didn't work, it was exhausting and I learned a lesson that has stayed with me - tattooed inside my eye-lids.
Could you talk about your history in martial arts?
I studied many styles, Judo, Karate, Jiu-jistu, Iai-do, Western Fencing, but I found my style in Lau Gar Kung Fu - I absolutely loved the mix of learning sets with actual sparring, it was a revelation and I attended several days a week, whenever I could whenever they would let me train. Tournaments and meets - loved it. I was not very good in the tournament fighting, enjoyed it more than I was successful at it, I was not good with points fighting, and would hit hard, but, get tapped three times before I'd landed my strike. But it was fun.
Who are your favourite martial artists?
Well I enjoy all the martial artists I work with. The whole cast of Triple Threat, beyond those guys, Jerry Trimble, Mark Dacascos, Dolph Lungren, Don Wilson they're all great human beings, inspiring and unique.
How did you get into stunt work?
I was very lucky to have family in the game, they'd throw me a bone when I was between gigs. I worked hard made my own contacts and enjoyed a good career for a while.
What is your favourite stunt you’ve ever done?
I loved setting up complex action sequences, that involved camera, effects, performance and choreography, it's wonderful thrill to have it come together.
On the lower-budget films I coordinated I would check the director, see what his ambitions and creativity could adjust to, if you get push-back, you pull-away and deliver what they want, less is often more, it was nice to find directors as ambitious as I was. But it was rare. Most of the time if was terribly-frustrating, but great motivation to pull my act together and get into directing.
What is the most challenging stunt you’ve ever done?
I ran a sequence for a Russian film that involved a convertible Cadillac with four stunt performers in it, doing a full 360 spin on a desert road with an 18 wheeler Peterbuilt flying towards them. It was terrifying and stressful, and we pulled it off beautifully, the shot was in the trailer. But, it was challenging to keep everyone safe, and give the director what he wanted for the film. Slept well that night.
How do you feel when you’re doing stunts?
Every stunt is/was different, some are fun, an adrenaline rush, other times, rarely, I might add, you wonder why you're there, and do you really need the money that much? But, honestly most of the time I am just focused on remembering my choreography and not screwing up the shot and delaying the day, embarrassment and shame being the most damaging - to my ego not my physical well-being.
Are there any misconceptions about stunt work?
In the old days, stunt men were seen as semi-literate hard-men, people who were damaged mentally and physically, though that misconception has faded, thankfully, I did work with plenty of the old guard when I was up and coming. Now there are more cerebral aspects to the work, the ability to work with wires, rigs, electronic-winches and gear. The fighting styles are less rough and tumble and more high-level martial arts, requiring decades of study in many cases, gun work is no longer how a firearm is held, but how it is used, reloaded, accessed and worked into a scene. It's become very competitive and very thoughtful - it is a good-time for stunts.
What do you see as the future of martial arts/action films?
I don't know. The market has been diminishing for years, the core audience of young men now watch video games for their kicks, they don't go to see movies at the Theatre. They just don't. I think women are accounting for more ticket sales than men, so the movies now reflect that. They must appeal to women, and action films will have to (and are) follow-suit. That or a way to monetise the films more efficiently that fans watch at home. The trouble is these films the ones I make with Scott particularly, are pirated instantly, and the fans watch the pirate downloads, the very-thing that is most damaging to the careers of their heroes.
What were your inspirations for Triple Threat?
Jon Hall the DP And I watched Sicario over and over for the camera movements, the way we framed a shot and lens choice.
The performance aspect was absolutely inspired by the actors themselves, I met them and talked with them and emphasised their strengths and avoided their weaknesses.
I watched The Magnificent Seven over and over, and The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, pictures with ensemble casts that had worked, that allowed their cast to shine within the aspirations of the picture. The Guns of Navarone was an inspiration, Anthony Quinn's character swears to kill Gregory Peck's character, when the mission is over. Always loved that, thought it was chillingly good set-up for a movie "team."
What was the best part of working on Triple Threat?
I loved the cast, and working in Thailand, I loved the Thai crew. I didn't want the shoot to end. I wanted to take my family and move there. I've never felt I was the subject of a nation, more of the world, unfortunately children's schools and mortgages etc., don't work like that.
What was your casting process like for Triple Threat?
We had to move fast, the start of photography was looming so I did my very best to hire the most reliable actors available.
What was the biggest lesson you learned while working on Triple Threat?
It was a reaffirmation of the my favourite rule, that having the right people around you "sometimes" allows you to achieve the impossible.
How do you want audiences to feel when they watch Triple Threat?
Excited, thrilled and entertained.
How has your experience been with Fighting Spirit Film Festival?
I had a wonderful experience with Soo and the festival with Debt Collector, we really enjoyed meeting the other attendees and it was a terrific screening and really fun to be a part of.
What is your favourite part of Fighting Spirit Film Festival?
I always like to watch the audience reactions to my film. I wait in the lobby and aggressively confront anyone trying to leave before the end, lol.
We hoped you enjoyed the interview and we hope to see you soon.