Jesse V. Johnson Interview, directing stellar performers in action films
Today I have a great opportunity to talk with one of those men behind the scenes, who you would not recognize on the streets, but who risks his life for entertaining action scenes. Jesse V. Johnson is a stunt coordinator and filmmaker, born on November 29, 1971, in Winchester, England. Prior to becoming a filmmaker, he worked as a stuntman and or a stunt-coordinator on such movies as M:i:III, Charlie’s Angels, Mars Attacks!, Planet of the Apes, Starship Troopers, War of the Worlds, Total Recall and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.
Budomate: Mr. Johnson, please tell what martial arts styles did you practise and which one is your favorite?
Jesse Johnson: I studied Lau Gar Kung Fu in the UK, for about five years, that was a very physical style, with a lot of inter-club tournaments and meets, great for a fifteen year old with too much aggression. When I started in film, and was really pursuing stunt work, I entered a Budo school and enjoyed the more traditional disciplines of Judo, Iai, Karate, Aikido and Jiu Jistsu. I enjoyed soaking them up, and that traditional knowledge base has been very useful in movie work. In the US I studied Taekwondo and Muay Thai for a while, really trying everything and seeing what was useful, or helpful, or even techniques that looked good for movie work. I love the martial arts and still enjoy studying.
Budomate: You started your stunt career from a great movie Total Recall, do you remember you first day on the sets?
Jesse Johnson: I remember Total Recall, but I had worked as an extra and a PA before that, I had even been a PA on a location shoot in the former Yugoslavia, where I had my seventeenth birthday. I do not remember my first day on a set, but I do remember the smell of the fiber glass mill at Pinewood studios, to this day that smell brings to mind feelings of excitement and great adventure, the promise of another world. My imagination would run wild thinking of all the great sets and worlds those craftsmen were creating, silly really, writing about it now.
Budomate: You worked with Patrick Swayze on the Balck Dog movie, what can you say about him and this movie?
Jesse Johnson: Black Dog was an OK experience for me, but it was a very problematic movie, as a stunt crew we replaced another, that was fired, so that was odd to start with. Then there were some accidents that left some crew members and stuntmen very badly burned, it was a bit grim. You never want to see that, and it darkened my memory of the film. I remember Patrick as being awesome and very friendly, professional. He was extremely respectful of his stunt double and would defer to his knowledge regarding safety or his own abilities. You can’t help to find that classy in an actor. A real shame, cancer is truly awful.
Budomate: On Charlie Angels you worked as assistant stunt coordinator, was there some interesting moments on the sets with such lovely 3 beauties?
Jesse Johnson: I loved Charlie’s Angels, it was a terrific shoot, the girls were all very gung-ho and we had a great time. I remember having to act as a safety back up for them on a speed boat sequence. There wasn’t much room, so I had to lie on the floor at their feet while Cameron Diaz drove the boat, theoretically, if anything went wrong I could stand up from where I was hidden and take control of the vessel. The Angels appeared and were all in skimpy swimming costumes, and actually, pretty much had to stand on me, because of the cramped space. But, instead of being sexy, which I suppose it could have been, I was just really self conscious and embarrassed, thankfully they made a joke of it. Tough life sometimes.
Budomate: Not everybody get a chance to work twice with Arnold, you got it on Totall Recall and 13 years later on Terminator 3, please tell did Arnold changed somehow and what is your favorite part of franchise?
Jesse Johnson: I worked mainly with his double on T3, but he’s pretty consistently awesome, a fantastic supporter of stuntmen and very respectful and appreciative of the work that we do. He is a class act, as far as his professional life goes anyway, I don’t think you will find a stuntman who doesn’t love Arnold. He has employed and looked after so many of us. I wasn’t much of a fan of T3, but I loved the McG one.
Jesse Johnson: I felt the film was a huge missed opportunity, perhaps it was aiming too high, or not high enough.
Budomate: On which movie you wanted to work on but it didn’t happened?
Jesse Johnson: I can’t think of any recent ones – I would have loved to work with Sam Peckinpah, or John Ford, John Huston, Kurosawa. There was a time when the world was a bigger, less familiar place, no cell phones, email, or communication, when going on a big picture meant risking life and limb for a year or so, to create something. That is an era I regret missing.
Budomate: Thor is very popular and there is a sequel coming next year, how do you think why it is so popular?
Jesse Johnson: I don’t understand why any of the superhero movies are so popular with adults. It reflects a desire by a great majority of moviegoers to remain adolescent and childlike, free of the burdens of being a grown up. America is the land of eternal youth, we don’t respect our elders we ignore them. Maybe people just love revisiting their youth. I don’t know. Thor was extremely well directed, and had terrific actors in it, that certainly helps a movie.
Budomate: You have just finished your work on the Amazing Spiderman movie, will it be absolutely different movie?
Jesse Johnson: I was just a worker-bee on Spiderman, it looks like a great movie, and Vic Armstrong, the action-director is a grand master of the craft of action.
Budomate: Eric Norris and Richard Norris are stunts too in Spiderman, how do you think why such a good action actors do not act anymore like before?
Jesse Johnson: The business has shifted, the era of making money from low budget martial arts movies, starring athletes handed acting careers, has long gone – the industry is star driven, and the audiences are particular and very discerning. These guys are great guys, but it would simply be very, very difficult for them to rely on acting alone to pay their bills. I am the same way with my directing, I often make more money stunting on a big show than directing a small show. But, I don’t care, a man’s pay check has never been a way to judge him as either an artist or a human-being.
Budomate: What is your favorite movie?
Jesse Johnson: My favorite is always the one I am working on – but I love Charlie Valentine, and Green Street Hooligans 2, was an extremely difficult project that came out so much better than it should have. The Butcher was a great script, that promised so much more and came out so much less than it should have – but you try to judge them all with a view to not repeating mistakes. I have no interest in any of my movies prior to The Butcher, discussing them feels like revisiting a crime scene.
Jesse Johnson: I love Mathias and Jerry, but the industry has changed and making a movie with one of them in the lead would be impossible for me. I have hired them both many times and will continue to, as long as they turn up when I call – they are both stellar performers in different ways.
Budomate: The Fifth Commandment is not bad action with Rick Yune, who was a screenwriter, please tell more about this movie.
Jesse Johnson: I don’t know who wrote the 5th Commandment – I rewrote sections of it, and added scenes for the great Keith David, but it was Rick Yune’s project, and he was ultimately responsible for it. I was given a fairly free hand with the action, and designed and created those sequences with Garrett Warren, but the film was an overwhelmingly negative experience for me, and I would rather not revisit it.
Jesse Johnson: Scott deserves all the popularity he has, and if the world is a fair place, which it rarely is, he should become a great movie star – I am a huge fan of his and he knows it. I hope he is careful about allowing his talent to be dulled by doing too many poor quality movies.
Budomate: Alien Agent is another good action with Mark Dacascos and Darren Shahalavi, how did you meet these guys?
Jesse Johnson: Mark and I were attached to the script at around the same time by the producers of the project. He is awesome and I cannot say enough great things about him. Darren, I cast and am an enormous fan, Darren and I had mutual friends when we were teenagers in the UK, so meeting in Canada after twenty years was quite interesting. He is an epic talent and a great human, as is Mark, both gentlemen of the true definition. I enjoyed making that movie immensely, unfortunately I had zero input into the script. I was allowed to design the action, and set-pieces, but had a producer on set who literally forbade me making dialogue changes. It was a shame, as the film had potential, I wanted mark to look great and I think he does.
Budomate: The Butcher is one of your lates movies with Eric Roberts and Jerry Trimble, please tell more about it?
Jesse Johnson: I wrote the Butcher, and it was a very solid and powerful script, we had a lot of interest in the script and casting was going great. But we could’t attach anyone in the time slot the funders had for shooting – the joke had always been, well we can always get Eric Roberts, well, I know not to joke about such things anymore. Eric turned out to be awesome however, and we got along very well. But he had no time to learn the script, so 80% of the finely crafted dialogue that had first excited people about the movie, went out of the window. We did as good as we could, but, it was a tough one.
He turned in as good a perf’ as was possible, but it was always cramped by a teeny, tiny schedule and a shoestring budget, you do your best. I would love to remake it, and probably will, someday. We had a strange set of backers who desperately felt they needed to act in the picture, and they did, delivering performances a little better than you would expect from people who had never acted before.
Jerry was very good, and enjoyed playing a bad guy, I thought he did great, and Eric Roberts loved him. We had a good cast and really should have had two or three weeks more prep and the film would have been epic. Spilled milk, I like the shoot-out, and Robert Davi is fun, a larger than life character. I will work with Eric again, and I will utilize that great overworked-underused talent of his.
Budomate: This movie has the same name like the next movie with Van Damme, what do you think about his come back?
Jesse Johnson: I haven’t watched a Van Damme movie in fifteen years – did he have a comeback? I do know the writers of that project, Chad Law, he is a good guy and told me he had no say in the title of the project.
Budomate: My traditional question – which 3 martial arts movies made in US you can call a classic?
Jesse Johnson: Spencer Tracy uses Judo in Bad Day at Black Rock, one of my all time favorite movies, period. I loved The Warrior, that was MMA, Isaac’s Florentine’s Undisputed 3 with Scott is sensational. Tough question, that one. My favorite movies with martial arts lately have all been from Korea, and before that Japan – the all time best martial arts film for me is Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa’s first picture.
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