Big Thank you to maestro of the action genre Mr Jesse Johnson for agreeing to come chat with me.
Thank you, for your interest.
So to begin Jesse what initially drove you to want to make movies and do stunts?
I read up on the directors I loved and realized there was a way “in” for an outsider, you could write your way in. But it took some time to workthat route into being
To survive the time involved, you needed a side-job. So, I learned to do almost every job on a film, I had a half dozen pre-prepared resumes, PA, Art Dept., Armourer, props, Assistant Director, I’d visit production offices and just keep working, night and day, I lived and ate and talked movies. You need a driver, I’m your man, a prop-assistant, I’m your man, etc.
Eventually I angled into Stunts, my background was as an athlete and martial artists, I rode horses and motorcycles and loved action-movies, it is and was a good paying job, and coordinating is very close to directing. You work directly with the cast, you instill confidence and learn to communicate with them in a way that they feel respected but also confident in your direction.
You deal directly with the production regarding budget and schedule and over-time, meal penalties and travel, and over many locations and assignments you find your sea legs, so that when the time is right and you want to direct, you have a very confident handle on the tasks involved.
Your stunt work is quite phenomenal, some of your credits include films such as Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Starship Troopers, Thin Red Line, Charlie’s Angels, Planet Of The Apes, Thor, The Amazing Spiderman 1&2!! That’s very impressive for a handful. But a couple of movies I want to ask about that hooked me right away were Mission Impossible 3, how did the opportunity come round to work with Tom and the gang? I bet it was pretty cool working with Tom and his daredevil mindset.
I am very, very lucky to have an Uncle, Vic Armstrong, who is in the game, he and my cousins worked and ran many of those big movies, I would call when I was between jobs they would bring me in. I would have too hit the ground and pay my dues, there was no free ride, but I was very fortunate to have their faith in my abilities. I also, work closely with Garrett Warren, a great friend,we met on Starship Troopers and over the years have employed each other on many jobs. He’s now one of the top-tier coordinators and second unit directors, his friendship has been profoundly helpful, when surviving financially between directing jobs.
Then there’s Terminator 3!! How was that expirience? I am sure it was awesome to see Arnold play such an iconic character.
I had worked with stunt coordinator Simon Crane, when I first started out in the UK on the Young
I first started out in the UK on the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and he was nice enough to hire me on T3, I had worked with Arnold on Total Recall, he was and is an iconic character on and off screen.
And lastly you worked with one of my favourite action heroes.. Dolph Lundgren who you worked with on Agent Red and The Package. The Package seemed like a fun shoot and is my favourite Steve Austin movie, how did you manage to get so many badass martial artists in one movie? (Dolph, Jerry Trimble and Darren Shahlavi)
Dolph I worked with on Army of One, as an Art Director and then 20 years later, I worked as his director on the Package, and loved it. I was a stunt man for two or three days on Agent Red, and did not meet him at all.
On the Package, they had the cast committed before they hired me, I had to meet Steve Austin and sell myself, we chatted a lot, and I expressed my interest in performance and character, and we got on well.
At the time he was very focused on doing well, and it was upsetting to me when he later decided to quit movies.
Dolph I met for the first time when he arrived on set, he was great, very helpful and professional, and very concerned about the character he played. I thought he did great, I think he received some of his best reviews of his career for that role.
They gave me “carte blanche” on the rest of the cast, so I hired my friends, Jerry Trimble has worked with me many times, Darren Shalavi was an old friend and I was lucky they both said yes.
Speaking of martial artists you got to work with Don Wilson on the action packed movie The Last Sentinel! Don seems like an awesome guy and he’s a great martial artist, was that your first movie with ‘big’ name stars?
Don and I had the same agent, Ray Cavaleri, I had directed Pit Fighter, and that made a LOT of money for Fox, so Don knew about me.
Don had a fully-financed movie, and the producer fired the director, that director took the script with him when he exited. They called me for an 11pmmeeting and said, “do you have anything for next week?” – I had the Last Sentinel script, and we were up and running within the month. It was a mad insane and mental shoot, breaking laws, I was chased and threatened by a land owner who didn’t want us filming, it was crazy.
But the film was hugely successful and I learned a few valuable lessons.
More recently you have collaborated with Scott Adkins in four movies, well five if you include Pit Fighter.
Savage Dog was your first collaboration together, I found it awesome, you always get good names in your movies like Mario Zaror and Cung Le, alongwith the wonderful Keith David. When you were writing this, did you always picture Scott in the lead role?
Thank you, Savage Dog was written many, many years ago as a follow up to Pit Fighter.
Over time, it had a whole roster of Martial Arts stars attached to play the lead, but was tossed away at length.
Years later, I made a film in Black and white, whichwon a slew of festivals, but was almost impossible to sell, so I found myself with the first non-profitable film of my career, ever.
I found myself with the first non-profitable film of my career, ever.
I was stumped and needed a job.
I dusted off Savage Dog, sent it to Scott Adkins who enjoyed it, and we had a green-light relatively quickly, after my experience with the black and white film I was terrified of another financial failure, so I threw EVERY single name or semi-name actor I could at the project, called on every favor and contact I could wrangle and waited to see where the chips fell.
Thankfully, it was received very positively and did great business.
It is a hard film for me to watch now, as the shoot was brought with drama and compromise and I can only see those, but, that it was finished wasan achievement in and of itself – you move on and try to learn from your experiences.
I am going to assume the relationship you guys built lead to his casting in the Debt Collector aswell? As Scott is a great actor in all aspects other than just tearing people apart.
Scott is an excellent actor and a very, very professional collaborator, we do not simply worktogether as director and actor, our relationshipsince Accident man has been as filmmaking partners.
relationshipsince Accident man has been as filmmaking partners.
Stu Small, Myself and Scott, basically write together, produce together and discuss the concept together.
It’s a very efficient and well tuned machine, and we all work extremely hard to make the best movie possible. Scott and Stu both are involved with casting, script, action, so in truth we author these films as a threesome.
I loved Accident Man, it was off the charts great. This time around was it Scott who came to you to direct?
Scott called me to direct Accident Man, but I had to win over the producers attached, and Sony had to sign off on me, it was a backwards and forwards deal, I think Scott fired me at one point, and then rehired me.
I had to win over the producers attached, and Sony had to sign off on me, it was a backwards and forwards deal, I think Scott fired me at one point, and then rehired me.
point, and then rehired me.
It was business as usual, and I’ve been in the game long enough not to take any of that sort ofthing personally. There are always many factors at play. I keep working, and if I’m not wanted I go elsewhere, and am happy.
sort ofthing personally. There are always many factors at play. I keep working, and if I’m not wanted I go elsewhere, and am happy.
The worst imaginable relationship is one where you are working as director and disagreeing artistically with your producer(s) – I had this experience once, and it would have been better not to have directed that movie.
Is there a sequel green lit or in the works? And if so will you be back to direct?
Yes, there is talk of an Accident Man sequel and yes I have been asked to direct, but this is the movie industry it is fickle, unsentimental and perplexing, so until you are standing on set, yelling action, you cannot be sure of anything.
Your most anticipated movie right this minute is Triple Threat, how was it putting so many great action stars in one movie?
Triple Threat is an awesome film, a very satisfying action movie, I was hired after the three leads, Iko Uwais, Tony Jaa and Tiger Chen were onboard.
I helped put together the rest of the cast, I fought very hard too have them hire Scott Adkins, whom Iknew would be sensational as the antagonist, and he agreed to work below his usual rate to be there. Michael Jai White, I enjoyed from Accident Man and Michael Bisping was just great to work with. Dominiquie Vandenberg and Ron Smoorenberg were old friends who came in to help me.
too have them hire Scott Adkins, whom Iknew would be sensational as the antagonist, and he agreed to work below his usual rate to be there. Michael Jai White, I enjoyed from Accident Man and Michael Bisping was just great to work with. Dominiquie Vandenberg and Ron Smoorenberg were old friends who came in to help me.
Vandenberg and Ron Smoorenberg were old friends who came in to help me.
I had seen Chocolate when it came out and was a huge fan of Jeeja Yanin so worked hard to get her hired, and she is incredible in the film. It was an incredible once in a lifetime experience to direct these guys, all incredibly committed, motivated and invested in making the best film possible, it was just a wonderful experience!
How did you decide who would ultimately fight who as ‘Final Face Offs’?
Well, there are well-layered character back-storiesthat are developed throughout the movie that pit the various characters against each other, so it is very organic and satisfying when it finally comes down to the third act, which is just epic, unrelenting and very exciting.
third act, which is just epic, unrelenting and very exciting.
I assume everyone was excited to see it’s more than just a cameo?
This cast was crazy well behaved, they never used their trailers on set, instead sitting in circles of chairs on set, telling stories, and laughing, it really was an outdoors adventure. Michael Bisping held court, and I think he inspired them all a bit. It was all a great fun. The film would not have worked without that kind of camaraderie, as we were all falling over each other for three months, any kind of ego, or show-boating, posturing would have been unbearable.
camaraderie, as we were all falling over each other for three months, any kind of ego, or show-boating, posturing would have been unbearable.
Mike Bisping really got everyone into the moment, he was the world champion at the time and in great spirits, sometimes it helps to have a character like that around. I’ll be forever grateful to him for this.
spirits, sometimes it helps to have a character like that around. I’ll be forever grateful to him for this.
I cannot wait to see this movie!
Thank you, I look forward to seeing how the film is received, I am so proud of what the cast did in it.
The physical action is all very real and performed almost entirely by the cast themselves, no Animation, and really gritty, the sort of thing no major studio is doing at all, so hopefully it will rattle some cages.
I must say the major studios work very, very hard to play down how good the independent action scene is, especially the work of Scott Adkins, this of course is absolutely understandable, as the current state of studio pictures represents some of the hands-down worse action in the history of cinema, unless you believe that cartoon cars, dinosaurs, supermen or monsters are real.
you believe that cartoon cars, dinosaurs, supermen or monsters are real.
Lastly Jesse, is there anything your working on now that you can tell us about?
Currently, I am in the UK working with Scott and Stu on another picture, a very different but familiar step for us.
Thank you for your time Jesse, is there anywhere fans new or old can follow you and keep up to date with you and your movies?
I use my Instagram when I am able @actionjessevjohnson and Facebook pages: https://www.facebook.com/actionjessevjohnson/