Jesse V. Johnson is director, screenwriter and and stunt coordinator who started when he was only 14 years old on the set of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He has worked on many films including Total Recall (1990) and Avatar (2009).
His next film, due out in February 2018, is the action thriller Accident Man and is based on the UK comic book series. I caught up with him to find out more about the Jesse himself, Accident Man and his future projects.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into stuntwork and filmmaking?
I started out at 14 years old, carrying stunt-gear and making coffee for my uncle, Vic Armstrong. He was stunt-doubling for Harrison Ford on “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” at the time. I was still at high-school and had to get around on my bicycle, cycling to the studio in the rain at 5am.
I became an assistant director for a few years after that, thinking this was the way to become a director – Shawshank Redemption, Mortal Kombat, Mr. Holland’s Opus – but, assistant directing is simply not a wise-route to becoming a director. I returned to stunt-work and arranging, which was a clearer creative path into the kind of film-making that obsessed me.
What can you tell us about about Accident Man which stars Scott Adkins, Amy Johnston (Lady Bloodfight) and Michael Jai White (Falcon Rising)?
Mike Fallon is a murderer for hire, based in London – his speciality is disguising his murders to look like accidents. When he finds out his wife has been assassinated by killers in his own group, he goes a little out of control. Working in London was a wonderful experience for me, I hadn’t earned money there in 25 years, so returning with a first class ticket hotel and per-diem-pay was wonderful. The crew were insanely talented, casting actors in the UK is a dream, they’re all just so bloody good! I had a wonderful time bringing Scott’s imagination to life.
Accident Man was a project that Scott had been developing with his school friend, the very talented, Stu Small, for ten years. I wasn’t familiar with the comic, but I knew the writers, through a childhood of reading 2000AD, so I was very excited to read the script.
Accident Man features an impressive cast. Can you tell us how this film came about and how you pulled together the cast?
The film is about killers, but it has a streak of blatant-irony or black-humour running through it. Smart actors grasp this, and it’s an appealing angle to them, these guys (and girls) are asked to do the tough-guy killer-martial-arts schtick all the time, so I think it is very exciting to do a role that requires some humor. The wonderfully committed producer Craig Baumgarten brought in Ashley Greene (Twilight) and Ray Stevenson who were both magical to work with. He also represents Amy Johnston and Michael Jai White so they came aboard relatively simply. Erik Kritzer our other producer brought in the Oscar Nominated actor, David Paymer. I knew Ray Park from Los Angeles and called him, and he was gracious enough to join us, it really was a superb team. Nick Moran came in through the UK producer Joe Karimi. Most importantly the script was good, and when the script is good it’s easier to find talent.
What was it like to film Accident Man in and around London?
We were so blessed, every time something fell apart, the alternative that presented itself elevated the film. The weather for a December shoot was golden and beautiful without any rain for the whole production, mind blowing. We went to the East End, where the film was set, and realized, the East End is now very fancy, expensive and anything but rough and nasty. We had to work hard to find the grim looking locations we needed, several times our location van was stopped by police because they thought we were cruising to buy drugs.
Most films operate like a barometer reading of the director’s sensibilities, and I was enthusiastic and very committed to making a great movie, the team followed suit beautifully. The local producer Ben Jaques must take about 98% of the credit, he is an incredible facilitator and hard worker, the kind of producer who will arrive before the crew, help cook breakfast, then take meetings at a West-End hotel with the Film-Finance Office Executives from New York before returning to drive a truck for the transportation dept. who are down a man, ending up the last to leave the set – just incredible! We were very lucky to have him on Accident Man.
How was it to work with many cast members known for various action films. Did it help that you have an action-orientated background?
I love actors, and they feel that this is the best-thing I have going for me. I just love what they do, and admire it with all my heart, my primary-goal is always to create an environment for them to thrive and do their best work, they usually cotton on to this quickly. They take me on as a co-conspirator and we do great work together.
Another film that you have out later this year is the action film Triple Threat with Tony Ja, Iko Uwais Tiger Chen and Scott Adkins. The the cast for this is also impressive. Can you tell us how this film came about and how you got everyone on board?
Tiger Chen had put together a project with Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais, they didn’t have a script but they had an idea to be directed by Chad Stehelski – that idea and cast was what the great Gary Hamilton of Arclight realised was lightning in a bottle. Chad departed the project and I was brought on by Mike Gabrawy to shepard the film into life. It was an exhilarating and exciting shoot with some incredibly talented performers and crew, and I think it will be epic!
I had just worked with Scott and truly enjoyed our collaborative process, so I campaigned to get him onto the project, we then had Stu Small spice up his scenes and he makes an incredible bad guy. Michael Jai White was brought in by Mike Selby, the Thai co-rpoducer, and I obviously love working with him, so I was very happy. Michael Bisping (xXx: The Return of Xander Cage) came through Brett Norensberg of Gersh, who represents Scott, Iko, Tony Jaa and Tiger. Jeeja Yanin was someone I knew about from the remarkable film Chocolate, so I searched her out and we brought her in. It was a joy to work on, and if I am honest I didn’t really want the shoot to end, it was the most vital experience I have ever had professionally. Although I think the wonderful Thai crew thought I was mentally deranged.
What films influence you as a director?
Although it’s important to be aware of what is out there I am very careful not to watch too many recent releases, I try hard not to get immersed in the Zeitgeist of now, because, my films come out tomorrow, and will feel old if current references are all I have in my cerebellum, we are so influenced by what we watch. I try hard to look further back, and further away, to seek out the rarer gems for inspiration.
I love Wong Kar Wei at the moment; the colour and camera he uses are incredible – I’m obsessed with the films of Jean Pierre Melville and Sam Peckinpah. Paul Thomas Anderson is the best we have at the moment, I worked as a stuntman on The Master, and that was the only time I really remember being star-struck.
I loved Sicario, Atomic Blonde, Logan – I think we are in the era of the female-protagonist, theatrical releases, in the US particularly, are governed by a very female-centric audience, you ignore this at your peril.
What’s next for you after these films?
My film The Debt Collector will be coming out in 2018 – Scott stars in that and has turned in a bravura performance, incredibly good really. It is a rather wonderful film, and I hope people will respond to it, it’s got my soul tattooed into it, it would upset me bitterly if it didn’t find it’s audience. But, you never know.
Thanks for the questions – JVJ LA 2018
Accident Man is released in the USA from 6th February 2018 and in the UK from 16th April 2018.
See the trailer below:
For more information about Jesse V Johnson go to www.jessevjohnson.com