Imagine a guy who works as a simple journalist for a worldwide known newspaper by day, and after work, by night, runs his own small online news website. This way, after the sun goes down, he gets to be himself, no one tells him what to write, he chooses his own stories, and shares them with the rest of the world. He develops as an artist, as a person, as a professional. And the days are needed only to pay the bills.
Jesse Johnson’s story is somewhat similar to what is written above. From a simple motion picture stuntman he went on to write and direct his own movies. In this exclusive interview, Johnson talks about the stuntman’s day on the set, his work with Eric Roberts, his latest movie Charlie Valentine, and why he likes to use real criminals & real strippers in his films.
Mr. Johnson, you started your career as a stuntman, and since then worked in this department on some very well-known Hollywood blockbusters (MI3, Terminator Salvation, Starship Troopers, Mars Attacks, Avatar), starting with Schwarzenegger’s “Total Recall” back in 1990. Since there’s not much being said about stuntmen, please tell, how are they being treated on the set of a big-budget film?
I love working as a stuntman, the work has given me the precious financial freedom very few other directors in my position have had, this last year has been devastating to a lot of my friends, houses lost and marriages destroyed by bills that just weren’t paid. Stunt work really can be exciting, challenging and very well rewarded – you arrive for a job and learn the desire of the director, figure out a way to do it as safely as possible, and then go for it.
I am afforded the opportunity of working with the very best technical and artistic experts in the world, able to watch them and learn new techniques, that I will utilize in my own productions – it can be the very best film school in the world, if you’re prepared to watch and listen.
I enjoy the physical and mental challenges the work requires of me, I can drop into a movie for three days, do my “job” – leave and continue with my life, having made enough to pay my bills for a few months. You are treated superbly well, the level of respect is great, and honestly it rarely feels like working, in the negative sense of the word. I truly am very lucky.
I have less interest in stunt coordinating, that is a managerial position, that requires enormous diplomacy and people skills, it also calls for more time commitment, I like to spend my personal time developing my projects not making someone else’s look good, I’m too selfish to coordinate. I like to spend my spare time writing or developing my personal projects, which believe me is a great commitment.
Your first work as a director came in 1998 with the movie “Death Row the Tournament”, starring Dominique Vandenberg. According to your bio, Vandenberg financed you earlier in your career. Please tell about how you first got started, and how Vandenberg was helping you out. Did you cast him in The Pit Fighter as “giving back the favor” for his help to you?
Dominique and I worked on Mortal Kombat together, in the mid 90s. I was struggling to find a way to direct, as he was to act, he was an ex-foreign legionnaire and real life mercenary, who wanted to use his earlier life to motivate a film career, it was the tale end of a period when martial personalities were becoming movie stars relatively frequently, he wanted to throw his name into that hat.
He had some money left over from some illicit goings ons, fighting or merc work, or maybe a legion pay-off, not sure, but we used it to finance our careers, first in a short, then a feature film, very low budget, but a great learning experience.
It was a rough a ready road, and he truly always believed in me, paying my bills so that I could finish the movie and just really, going without himself, so that we could move forward. When “Pit Fighter” came along, the producers begged me to go with another actor, but I fought for Dominique, and have tried to use him in everything else I have made, you don’t meet people like him very often and besides I enjoy his company, he comes from a place where your word and character are more important than money or status, it’s wise to keep people like that around, he is an inspiration.
A quick one: A stuntman turned director, or a director who used to be stuntman, who is Jesse Johnson? Who do you (at this point) consider yourself?
It is my desire to be a filmmaker, in the truest sense of the word. My stunt-work has been a personal odyssey and a survival necessity, it should not be confused with my directing or writing work in terms of my legacy, I had no creative input, and the stunt work does not reflect me creatively or stylistically.
That said, as a filmmaker my work has often reflected my life and surroundings to a certain extent with regard to the characters I create, tough grizzled men who have been active physically and have led dangerous careers, men who may or may not follow the law, I would be lying through my teeth, if I said I hadn’t been influenced by certain characters I had met over the years, or their view of the world.
Back in 2007 you directed “The Sentinel”, with legendary kickboxing champion Don “the Dragon” Wilson, who hasn’t done any other project since. Please tell about your experience working on that post-apocalyptic film, and your experiences of working with Wilson. Do you know why he has not done any other movie since “The Sentinel”?
I have not idea why he hasn’t worked since, the state of movie financing has changed, what once made money no longer makes money, we are experiencing a profound change in climate. The rock and roll era of martial arts movies and action movies that sold the world over, with no big cast names, is over! Movies have to be carefully made, well crafted and acted and bill name cast, real name cast, not B-movie names – this is more important now than ever, to the independent scene.
The studios can make a film or pick up a film with no names, they have the money to promote it. As an indie producer, it is much, much more difficult now than it has ever been to see a return on your investment. The Last Sentinel made money, but it was probably due to Katee Sackhoff’s involvement, as much as I love Don, and I do, his name is not the draw that it once was. I would love to work with him again, and I wanted him for a part in The Butcher, it didn’t work out, he is still busy on the personal appearance circuit.
Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Jerry Trimble, Darren Shahlavi, Scott Adkins, Matthias Hues, Mark Dacascos…all of the mentioned actors you worked with are either martial artists, or prefer to star in such kind of movies. Do you yourself prefer making martial-arts oriented pictures? Are you yourself in any way involved in martial arts?
I was a very active fighter in my late teens, I was a terrible student at school and left early, I adored hitting and getting hit, and the discipline of the martial arts thrilled me, I was also a cadet, reserve soldier and trying out for the Royal Marine Commandos – before discovering stunt-work. With regard to the martial arts, specifically, contact Kung-fu, I was however, more proficient at getting hit than hitting the other guy, and my fight career was phenomenally unsuccessful.
I enjoy talking martial arts and hanging out with the stars of the sport, I speak their language and get good work out of them, their faces appeal to me, they’ve been hit a few times, they’ve inflicted physical damage on another human being, they’ve knocked guys out, or had their faces beaten and broken, they look real. An actor can fake this life experience, and many do, very, very well, but me, I enjoy putting the real thing in supporting roles. It gives me a head start. I also use real soldiers, real criminals and often real strippers to play strippers, it makes sense, no?
Let’s talk about your movie The Butcher. Now, Eric Roberts, by many, is considered a multi-talented, versatile actor, who can equally well be in a big Hollywood blockbuster, or in a low-budget film. What was it like working on “the Butcher”, and with Eric Roberts in particular?
Eric is fantastic, a sensitive, artistic, complex man, but a man who has travelled the very highest of roads artistically and the very lowest of roads personally, and found his way to an inner peace and strength, a real man. I loved working with him, it was an honor and a learning experience. He is a family man and honorable, a big man, when it comes to heart, and I think he did great work.
That said, he can be volatile and challenging, but the very best always are, that is what makes them interesting to watch, that is what translates on the screen. I don’t look for friendly, or comfortable, I look for edgy, I do not require that you be early, cheerful and know everyones lines, I can live in discomfort if it’s returning great work. I love actors, and Eric sensed this and I think he enjoyed working with me.
Every so often you would look at Eric, and he was somewhere else, he would catch you watching him with his eyes – and it would be an animal, feral, predator look, a little frightening, without turning his head, just his eyes, and you’d know there was something magical, maybe black magical going on, he was somewhere else, another dimension, an alternate reality, the one only true artists get to visit, he’d look at you again and he was back again, but he’d bring something to that take, to that line reading.
His knowledge and understanding of the craft is so immense, I just hope I get to work with him again and we’ll come up with something magic.
One of your latest movies, “Charlie Valentine” has already grabbed a few awards at the film festivals. How did you came up with the idea for the movie? WHAT is “Charlie Valentine” about, and WHO is Charlie Valentine?
Charlie Valentine is a man out of his time, he has cheated life, the devil and fate for too long, he’s run away too many times, and now in the winter of his life, he is forced to face a past that connects with him in a way he had never expected.
Charlie is a survivor, and malignant personality, you will grow to love, hopefully, but like all con men he will leave you broke and broken hearted. He pretends to know about opera and fine cuisine, but he’s really only read a couple of magazines and has retained the book-notes, he’s a womanizer, but the women he frequents are not terribly picky and very likely include him on a list of several other lovers.
I really enjoyed writing and making Charlie Valentine and am just thrilled at the festival attention, it has done incredibly well, and has raked up a slew of trophies, which is strange, for a crime film about a bastard with a sawn off shotgun and switchblade!
The genesis for the story creatively were quite personal, my wife did some internet research and discovered my blood father, I was a product of the swinging sixties and had never met him, or been terribly interested. Needless to say my experience with the character of Charlie was different, my personal Charlie was a scoundrel of sorts, but he was a painter not a killer.
When the film showed at the Monaco Film festival, my Charlie came and watched, I think he enjoyed it, he had had some tough personal experiences since we first met and his hair had gone quite white, he looked scarily like Raymond Barry (the actor who plays Charlie Valentine) when we met again, just a coincidence but interesting.
What future plans does Jesse Johnson the director have for your average movie lovers?
People who enjoy my movies are, first of all, special. I am planning another crime movie very much in the tradition of The Butcher and Charlie Valentine, I love this genre and it still excites and entertains me. I don’t like laws or goody goodies, I like men with honor of a personal kind, I like mavericks. I also have some other projects planned that will hopefully excite and prove enjoyable. I will keep making films as long as I can, and promise to make them bigger and better and more challenging each time.