Jesse V. Johnson is no stranger to the action genre; he’s the nephew of legendary stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong and has directed The Package (with Dolph Lundgren and Steve Austin) as well as Charlie Valentine, The Fifth Commandment (with Rick Yune), The Beautiful Ones, Savage Dog and the upcoming Triple Threat, The Pay Up and Accident Man.
Jesse stops by The Action Elite and chats about Savage Dog as well as giving us some details on The Pay Up and getting THAT cast together for Triple Threat.
Savage Dog is quite different from your conventional fight film; how did it all come together?
It goes back to a movie I worked on a few years back called Pit Fighter; we always thought it was a really cool script and were on to something but it got brutally savaged by the producers so it was only ever a dull shadow of itself. I was working on a script that was really a revisit to the Pit Fighter arena and trying to formulate that for years and years; it finally came about with Savage Dog.
It’s a martial arts movie; so it was all about trying to come up with an original scenario for people who do mortal combat so it’s very tough. You have Westerns with martial arts in them, sci-fi films and everything in between so how can you do something slightly original? I came up with this backdrop which I thought was quite fun where you have an almost loyalist frontier town mentality which was almost reachable to an American audience because they were in Vietnam the decade following. So there’s a tentative grasp that isn’t too distant but hopefully familiar and interesting.
What made you want to set it in Indochina?
The funny thing is it was originally Mexico then Columbia and all over the place; finally I’d read an awful lot about that period and a particular regiment there and I just found it interesting. You have guys who are there for adventure or to get away from a past and then you’ve got this period where you’ve got true villains hiding out there like Nazis and these guys who are the worst of the worst. They are always great as bad guys as you can do whatever you want to them as no one has sympathy for them which helps in a dramatic sense. For the most part it’s really just an era or a backdrop that I don’t think had been used before.
I have lots of World War 2 items that I’ve put together over the years
The other thing was I had props from my personal collection; I have lots of World War 2 items that I’ve put together over the years. We had tons and tons of guns and blanks left over from other movies. If you look inside Steiner’s office that’s basically my office, so for a while there we were wondering if we could come up with a script where we could use everything we had access to. It’s a low budget movie so it was a real street fight but the originality factor was the one that appealed the most to me.
Is it wrong that I kinda liked Rastignac (Marko Zaror)? I thought he was pretty stylish…
(laughs) The funny thing is the Blue Brigade that Marko was supposed to be a part of were not actually ostracized. At the end of the second world war the crazy thing is they went back and went into politics and were embraced by Franco’s Spain which is a bit of a creepy fact. I decided to veer away from that to say he was ostracized because of his but the reality was stranger than fiction.
I tried to be as original as possible with these bad guys; you had Steiner who was an SS Officer and some of the other characters were holdouts until the end of the war. Cung Le’s character was an interesting one; for a brief period the guys that fought on the side of the French and then the French left so they were left completely holding the ball. In his mind as soon as the French went he thought he and his family would have been executed. There was some really interesting stuff going on; I mean, it’s an action movie, it’s generic and it’s made for a certain type of audience but you never want to pander to your audience. You always want to try and make as cool a film as possible and I understand on this one we probably over stepped on how much we had to spend, putting 15 pounds of shit into a 10 pound bag but we did our very best. I think it comes across when you watch it; you can certainly see the effort and the energy that went into it. In certain cases it falls a little short production value wise; I was watching it on the big screen and was thinking “Oh God, this is so, so low budget! (laughs)”. You do what you do though and sometimes we don’t get that choice; when you’re out there shooting for 16 days you just kinda forge ahead. I like to think that the film gathers momentum again after the first beheading where you get to see what the film was about.
Did you get to see it with a live audience?
No, it didn’t get a theatrical release here so I had to settle for watching the Blu-ray.
It’s fun but it’s quite different to what I’d done before in terms of its garishness. Every single person who worked on it put his or her soul into it. Scott really is great to work with; I’ve heard a lot recently that people say he’s my muse but I’ve learned so much working with him as a director/filmmaker. He is such a disciplinarian and he brings this need for perfection to not only the martial arts but the actual acting and even the story points, making sure the script is right. He’s a bloody hard worker and I hadn’t really run into someone who was that much of a hard worker and really devoted to making the film as good as it could be until I worked with Scott.
[quote]Scott really is great to work with
Was Scott’s character Martin Tilman always meant to be Irish?
Oh dude, it was Irish in the script; we didn’t know we were going with Scott at first. It was written for an actor and we were going to make him look like a martial artist and that kind of stuff. Doing an Irish accent and getting it wrong is one of the worst things in movies. I always think of Hard Times with James Coburn doing this terrible Irish accent and it’s one of my favourite films of all time. That fucking Coburn accent though almost screws up the whole movie. I kept saying to Scott on the phone “you don’t have to do the Irish accent, just do it in English” and he said “no, no the whole reason I want to do it is cos I want to do a fucking Irish accent so it shows I can act”. So I said “alright, but don’t screw it up because it’s the worst thing in the world.” He worked really hard and I was really happy with the way it turned out. That was one of the instances where I realized just how committed he was to bettering himself and to making people’s perception of what he can and can’t do better than they have been. Martial arts actors get a shitty rap; they’re really on a par with stuntmen where people are like “oh shit, are we really gonna hire that guy?” (laughs). I have a bit of a reputation for being able to get something of a performance out of the likes of Dolph Lundgren and Stone Cold; it helped me a little bit but I gotta say that working with Scott was really, really good and he worked super hard at the acting too.
Do you have a favourite character from the film?
I have a soft spot for Vladimir Kulich; I thought Steiner was very good. We had to cut lots of him out though. He had enormous amounts of screentime but he ended up being sympathetic. You don’t want him too sympathetic as the guy gets skewered with a sword (laughs). He ended up bringing some beautiful layering to the character to the point where you really enjoyed watching him. Marko is also a joy to work with and very professional and I also really liked Matthew Marsden from Rambo.. We were left alone by the distribution company with the casting and even the violence which is rare as normally the distributor will get involved there. All of these guys came on for basically what was scale in terms of rate and we had to wait for a few days before we were about to start shooting before anyone committed in case they got a bigger movie. So we got them and hit the ground running so it was whatever we came up with and I was very happy with what came out of it.
It’s open for a sequel; any story ideas for one?
I would LOVE to do a sequel with a bigger budget and production values just to blow people away with even just another week’s shooting. With a bigger crew and effects budget we could do great things. I don’t know about you but I love superhero movies but there’s something about stunts and realism; like blanks, pyrotechnics, blood squibs and pieces of metal flying everywhere. There’s something about the reality of all of those visceral factors that makes the movie that bit more exciting to watch. Let’s say everything is animated like the set and the stunts where there’s a mixture of cartoon character and stuntman. Now these are all beautifully laced together and machined but I just miss the fucking grunginess where it looks like someone was actually hurt. We can’t compete with Marvel on their playing field but we sat down and thought we can compete if we do something they are too scared to do.
If I see CG blood or gunfire in a movie then you’ve pretty much lost me.
Yeah, I’m done with a film at that point too. If they didn’t take the time to do it right then they may as well be doing duckfaces because they aren’t taking it seriously and just posing. My favourite era is actually the 60s and early 70s where you have these mercenary pictures like The Wild Geese where you’ve got these brutal movies with these guys who are vets from the Second World War; the movies were very masculine and violent in a Joseph Conrad or Ernest Hemingway environment. Those were the films I really enjoyed and that’s what I was hearkening to with Savage Dog. I liked it when it was a bit messier, not quite as well photographed and a bit more frantic.
Has your approach to fight scenes changed between Savage Dog and Triple Threat?
It’s been a very educational time for me; I started out thinking I knew how to do it by blocking fights. It didn’t work with the type of fighting style that Scott has as he’s quite picky about where the cameras are and you realize that it does require a unique way of covering those fights. It’s not what you expect and can be a bit frustrating so we had my guy Luke LaFontaine working with him on the first one and did very much a blend of the two styles and then on Accident Man I basically scripted the fights explaining what was going to happen, handed it over to Tim Man and let him put it together. We didn’t have enough time to shoot our first unit fights so it was going to be a second unit while I was away shooting the Ray Stevenson scenes.
On Triple Threat I wrote and designed the fight scenes
It was tricky as I feel they are very personal to me so I didn’t feel like I had a thumbprint on them. On Triple Threat I wrote and designed the fight scenes and explained how they needed to be shot. I got to work with Tim a little more closely and was a lot happier with how they came out in Triple Threat. They contain more Jesse Johnson than they did on Accident Man so I’m happy about that. The fights on The Pay Up are a great blend of myself, Scott and Luke LaFontaine together. You plan and plan, then you get to the set and you know you have a plan but it allows you to freestyle as well. We’re pretty efficient at this point; you’ve just got to be careful that it all follows the story and it’s not just a fight scene for the sake of it.
Can you give us some details on Pay Up at this stage?
It’s a script Scott and I were familiar with about 15 years ago and it was one that was optioned for a lot of people from Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bill Pullman had it for a while and a host of other name actors. Finally, we decided to step the game up a little bit with more drama. Scott said “what about that old script of yours The Debt Collector?” and so I had to actually buy it back from a producer who had optioned it probably 10 years ago. Our writer Stu Small (who writes for Scott) did a pass on it and we all loved it. It’s about two debt collectors who are very, very dark and brilliant who are forced midway through the film to have a complete reevaluation and change their act. Unfortunately when you take characters like that and change their world it usually doesn’t end up well for them. It’s quite film noir but with a lot of fighting in it and inadvertent martial arts; there’s a little less fighting than say the Boyka fans will like. It’s still Scott and still very brutal; hopefully the film that will step into the main stream and more commercial market as well. I think it will surprise, excite and entertain a lot of people. You feel like having a shower after a day in this world with these guys; it’s very grim. Louis Mandylor is fantastic in it too; he really stepped up to the plate and raised the bar.
Finally, how was it to get such a great cast together for Triple Threat?
Oh it was just fantastic; I showed up and they said “this is what we’ve got and what can you do with it?” I’d already had an amazing experience working with Scott so I pushed for him to become the bad guy cos I knew if I had him there then I knew he’d stay a little bit longer and help me with the action and fighting. I knew he could play this anti-hero bad guy and he’s one of the few people in the world who could give Tony, Tiger and Iko a run for their money in a fighting performance. Getting Michael Jai White and Jeeja Yanin was also very exciting and I was so impressed with her in Chocolate which I enjoyed very much. We put together the cast before we put together the full script which was then reverse engineered around 5 or 6 action sequences I wanted to see; to be the best ever that went the furthest, that used the best techniques and catered to each of these martial artists individual styles as independently as possible. By doing that it made it the best movie possible; the director’s cut will blow people away. It’s one of the most exciting periods of my life; we showed it to Arclight and they were just flipping out. It’s just a very, very cool movie and a lot of fun. The performance in martial arts is very high and I’m hoping it will be a trend setter. When you sit down and fulfill what the fans want to see you can work around that then it becomes pretty straightforward. It’s certainly a heavy responsibility; we all worked really hard on it and working in the jungle was crazy but it was such a great adventure and a once in a lifetime experience.
Savage Dog is out now in Canada and the USA on August 4th, 2017. Triple Threat is slated for release in 2018.