A conversation with John Hyams, director of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

david j. moore chats with director John Hyams about the new action sequel Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, as well as working with his father Peter Hyams, action stars Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins, and his previous films Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Dragon Eyes…

The Universal Soldier franchise soldiers on with the release of Universal Soldier 4: Day of Reckoning. With a new protagonist (played by Scott Adkins), and familiar stars such as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren from the existing entries in the franchise, Day of Reckoning is guaranteed to challenge expectations. Director John Hyams, who also helmed Universal Soldier 3: Regeneration, has worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme on three consecutive films and with Strike Force Middleweight Champion Cung Le on the film Dragon Eyes. Hyams, who is the son of prolific filmmaker Peter Hyams (who also directed Van Damme on Timecop and Sudden Death) is clearly a talent to be reckoned with, and with the release of Day of Reckoning, he proves once again that he has a style of his own.

david j. moore : Your father has worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme several times, and has in fact just finished working with him again on Enemies Closer. Your newest film Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is your third movie in a row with Van Damme. Were you at all present on the sets when your father was filming Timecop or Sudden Death back in the mid-1990’s? 

John Hyams: I really was not involved at all back then. In ’94, I’d recently graduated college. I was living in New York City. At the time, I wasn’t really involved in filmmaking. I’d studied fine art painting and sculpture. That was really what I wanted to pursue. I was painting and selling professionally. So I was in New York doing that. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time working with my dad. Almost all my jobs were on his sets. Whether it was pre-production, production, or post, I was always during my high school years working with him, spending as much time on his sets as I could. When his association with Jean-Claude began with Timecop, I was never around for those. Actually, I visited the set of Timecop for one day of shooting. I was able to see one day of shooting, but I’d never met Jean-Claude at that time. I didn’t see any shooting of Sudden Death. But all that served me later when I began developing a relationship with Jean-Claude. When I met him in fall/winter of 2008, it was the first time I’d met him or spoken with him.

djm: How was it that you were chosen to direct Universal Soldier: Regeneration?

JH: Originally, they had a different director involved. My dad was in talks with Moshe Diamant, the producer, about doing the film. It was a larger-budgeted movie that never ended up getting made. In the process of doing that, Moshe needed to get another Universal Soldier going. At the time, it might have been called A New Beginning, or something like that. They had a script for that movie, but they did not have either Jean-Claude’s or Dolph Lundgren’s agreement for that script as it was. Obviously, in order to get the money they needed for that movie, they needed the agreements of both of those guys. My dad struck up a deal with Moshe. He didn’t want to direct the movie, but he said he would shoot the movie – he would be the DP on it. He would do that, and by doing so, they thought it might help attract Jean-Claude and would help stimulate the agreement to make the movie. My dad was involved before I was involved, and it had a different director.

djm: Is it a big secret who the other director was?

JH: I’m not even sure who the other director was. There were a couple different guys. Ultimately, because the movie was in flux and didn’t have the two stars’ agreement, my name was thrown in the mix. I don’t know if my dad mentioned me to Moshe. I don’t know if my dad was too thrilled about working with some other director … I don’t know, it might not have gone so well. Maybe he thought of me, or maybe Moshe thought of me. Moshe had seen a documentary I’d done called The Smashing Machine. He was aware of me and what I could do. One way or the other, I got a call from Moshe, and he told me he was sending me the script for Universal Soldier, and that I needed to talk to Jean-Claude on the phone in a couple hours. I read the script that they had, which was the basic idea we used, which was the Chernobyl kidnapping of the kids aspect, but there were a lot of differences with what we ended up with. I had a long conversation with Jean-Claude, where he was just talking about ideas and things like that. Over the next month or two months, I realized that if I could get Jean-Claude and Dolph to both agree to the movie by whatever changes I proposed, then the movie would happen. So I set up for the next couple of months, working on the script, meeting with those guys, and eventually by getting their approval that’s what won me the job. It was a hell of an education. I certainly understood some of the mechanical aspects of making a movie, but there’s so much more to it in dealing with talent, in dealing with the power structure, doing the things you need to do to get a movie made. You don’t just write your script and make your demands. It’s more about somehow being in a position where you can execute your ideas and get people to understand what those ideas are in a way that makes them feel confident in your vision for the movie. If you’ve made several movies and you have a track record, they’ll be more willing to place their trust in you. I’d really only done documentary work and some television, so there really wasn’t a lot of fiction filmmaking that I’d had that was going to convince anyone of my ideas for this movie. Certainly in that case, just having my dad’s presence on the set was something that helped.

djm: What was the dynamic between the two of you – you and your father – while you were directing the film on location in Bulgaria?

JH: The dynamic between myself and my dad was very much a DP/director dynamic. It really wasn’t any different than that. We both had our ideas. Because he’s the DP, he was more than happy to relinquish control. He really didn’t want to be directing that movie. He didn’t want the ultimate responsibility on that movie. He was there to help me execute my vision; if he disagreed with me, he’d tell me, and if I disagreed with him, then we would work it out. However, there’s no doubt that having him there helped get Jean-Claude to agree to the movie. I’m not so sure he would have if he hadn’t been involved. Not to mention, being in Bulgaria, being on a movie like this where the budgets are never what you need them to be. Having my dad involved, helped us win a lot of battles that we might not have won if he hadn’t been there. “Oh, we need a crane for this day,” or “We need more lights,” or “We need more time.” All those things were from his influence, and I took advantage of that. It helped influence actors and producers, and my philosophy is that I don’t care how anything gets done, I don’t care who feels like they came up with the best idea, and I really don’t care what people think of me on the set. That’s a dangerous road to go on, to want to be the most popular guy on set, to want to be seen as a fun guy. Ultimately, when you’re the director, you’re the guy who’s going to keep people there longer, you’re the guy who makes them all do an extra take and make them miss the game that they wanted to go home to watch or miss the chance to tuck their kids in bed. Your decisions are best for the movie, but not necessarily the best decisions for everyone on set. Being popular on set isn’t important. When the movie’s over, everyone goes home, and you’re living with it until it’s finished. It’s something I always had to remind myself. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of me on set. I’d don’t even care if people think it was really Peter Hyams who directed the movie and I was just riding his coattails. I knew in the end that it was just going to be me in the editing room dealing with post, with sound, with music, and I was going to putting this thing together, and what we came up with was either going to be embraced or not embraced. That’s what we have to live with – that’s what I have to live with forever. It’s going to be out there forever. The only people I have to impress are the people who employed me, and beyond that, the audience. That’s it. I work for the people who put the money up and for the audience. Not necessarily in that order. The people who put the money up might even hate you, but if the audience embraces you, then the producers learn to like you. That’s what’s going to determine your future employment. That’s the hardest lesson to learn. Even on a low budget film, you’re still talking about millions of dollars. As a result, there’s a lot of conflict. People have a lot riding on these things. They fear that you might not be making the right choice.

djm: You must have felt that even more intensely with the new film, Day of Reckoning. It looks so radically different than any of the other Universal Soldier films.

JH: With Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, that’s a perfect example – that’s a movie the studio and people have not always felt entirely confident about until we started reading people’s reactions to it. I didn’t deliver to them Regeneration Part 2. I really went in a different direction. That certainly made some people nervous. We won’t really know for sure until it’s really out there, but so far it’s been embraced by the fans and some members of the critical community, which helps. People who didn’t like me maybe a month ago, maybe like me a little better right now.

djm: You’ve done three movies in a row with Jean-Claude. Clearly you guys work well together and you’ve each placed a certain amount of trust in each other. What’s that like, working with him?

JH: After Regeneration, he trusted me. Every actor, first and foremost, doesn’t want to be in something that’s shitty. Number two, they don’t want to be embarrassed or made a fool of. They don’t want to feel that you’re going to use their bad moments. They want you to use their good moments. In order to deliver any good performance, they need to be free to do some takes where they don’t have it right, where they deliver a bad performance on the way to the good one. So, that’s part of the agreement and the trust. Let’s be comfortable to go out there and fail and do things the long way, knowing that once we get it the right way, those are the moments we’ll use. That frees you up as a performer a lot. JC, I assume, saw the final product and felt comfortable with what we came up with, so we’ve always had a good, easy working relationship.

djm: Why was it decided to go directly to video for Regeneration? It certainly felt like a theatrical release, and it was a vast improvement over Universal Soldier: The Return. 

JH: It wasn’t my decision. It was decided before we even made the movie, that it would be a direct-to-video movie. To release it theatrically, requires some risk on the part of the people putting the money in. It costs something to release it theatrically. I think they all decided that it wasn’t worth the risk. They couldn’t lose releasing it directly to video. A lot of those things have to do with the track records of the performers. It involves a number of things. With Regeneration, we got a really positive reaction. I think it was beyond what they expected. They had very low expectations. They just wanted to make a profit, not lose money, and that was pretty much it. When all was said and done, it turned out that the reaction was far more positive than they anticipated. The bottom line is, I don’t know if it would have gotten that reaction if it had been theatrically released. The fact that it was direct-to-video, it was released in this world of low expectations, and so when people saw it, a lot of them wrote about it and said, “Wow – I was expecting something that wasn’t going to be very good, and it pleasantly surprised me.” It was a blessing. It would have been nice to have gotten a theatrical release, but the decision had been made to go direct-to-video.

djm: I find it curious that in the U.S., Magnet Releasing picked up Day of Reckoning, and they’re going to release it in theaters simultaneously with a VOD release. Why wasn’t Sony involved with Day of Reckoning’s video release?

JH: Sony is in it just for the home video. When the fourth one rolled around, the deal was basically the same. They told us, “This is going to be a direct-to-video movie.” Even after the success of Regeneration, they told us that it would be a direct-to-video movie unless it proves itself otherwise. I realized that this time around, that if we wanted to go theatrical that it would take a little more effort on all of our parts to push that on them. I think when we had our finished product of Day of Reckoning, there may have been some people at Sony who thought, “Not only is this not going to be theatrically released, but we don’t even like this movie.” Some people at Sony weren’t loving it because they’d thought we’d gone too far off the Universal Soldier reservation. They’re saying it’s not a straight action movie, it’s kind of a sci-fi horror noir. Genre-wise, it’s very different. Sony would not release it. Moshe and myself wanted to see it released theatrically, and Magnolia / Magnet saw it and wanted to release it and it fit right in with the kind of movies they release, so it was kind of a perfect marriage. I’ve been really pleased with what Magnet has been doing with it. It has a horror element to it, it’s got some Cronenberg elements to it. It’s almost like a Cronenberg interpretation of the Universal Soldier mythology. Magnet will release it in a number of cities and play theatrically, and will also play on Video On Demand. There’s also a 3D version. We shot it in 3D. We showed it at Fantastic Fest in 3D. It’s been released in 3D in Germany already. I like the 2D version just as much. It’s just a different way of looking at it. There’s also the “unrated” version versus the “R” rated version. The theatrical version will most likely be the “R” rated version. On demand, you’ll be able to choose which version you want to watch. When it comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray, it will be the “unrated” version. I prefer the “unrated” version.

djm: How do you think audiences and fans of Jean-Claude are going to receive Day of Reckoning?

JH: There’s going to be a lot of people, some huge Van Damme fans, huge Universal Soldier fans, who are not going to be happy with this movie. In Day of Reckoning, Van Damme is not the protagonist. The Scott Adkins character is the protagonist. It in no way follows the formula of those other movies. To me, it was the logical conclusion after the end of Regeneration. When I was thinking about the next movie we were going to make, I really assumed that these were my contributions to the franchise, so whatever I do in this franchise should exist in a universe that makes sense in and of itself. It doesn’t necessarily honor any other movie in the series except Regeneration. Since that was the last that was made, I was going to take that ending into account and say, “Where would all this go from here?” After Day of Reckoning, they could hire someone else to go make another one, and say, “Okay, we’re going to reboot the first one and start over.” That option exists. As upset as some people get with the directors for some of these movies go, you have to remember there’s no way you can kill a franchise. If people who are into this franchise and don’t like the direction I’ve taken, well, that will bear itself out. They will make another movie and can reboot the original concept like Chris Nolan did with Batman Begins. He didn’t have to honor what Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher did. Ultimately, I felt a responsibility to what we did on Regeneration and those ideas. So we took it in the direction we went because that’s the best movie we could make under the budget and circumstances we had. That was the best way to go.

djm: How did Van Damme and Lundgren react when you brought them Day of Reckoning?

JH: Considering that his character changed so drastically – not only in the amount of screen time, but he moved from the protagonist role to the antagonist role – Van Damme was surprisingly on board. It was a big leap for him. However, I think my previous experiences with him and knowing that I wasn’t out to do anything but honor him and his character and make everyone look as good as they can, helped a great deal. The difference in his role this time wasn’t to diminish him, but to take the character in a different direction. Jean-Claude is happy to do different things. He liked that this was a different challenge for him to play the character in a different way. He embraced it. Dolph, at first, did not necessarily embrace it. He sorta came around. The first script that I had turned in for this had gone even further off the reservation than the one that exists now. Sony thought I’d gone too far, and Dolph wasn’t a big fan of it either. I really had to start from scratch and write a whole new script that was what we ended up with now. Dolph liked that better – he preferred it. We were on the same page with it. In hindsight, I think they were right. The script I had originally written didn’t pick up right after Regeneration, but it took place many years, maybe 20 years later. Day of Reckoning takes place maybe five years later. My original idea took the technology that might have existed in that future world and gone with that.

djm: Is Dolph’s role bigger in Day of Reckoning than it was in Regeneration?

JH: Dolph’s part is maybe a little bigger. It’s comparable. Both Dolph’s role and Jean-Claude’s role are comparable in Day of Reckoning. Structurally, this film is almost a mystery. It’s an amnesia story that focuses on Scott Adkins’ character. The whole conceit of this movie was to change the perspective of the storytelling. All of the other Universal Soldier movies are from the government’s perspective. In Regeneration, it was an international problem. The government needs to call someone to fix this problem. They call on this technology they created. I thought it would be more interesting to tell a new story from the perspective of the weaponry, from the perspective of the monsters. The government in Day of Reckoning is a much more mysterious organization. We only see them as they come to the characters, and we’re never really sure what their motivations are. By telling this story from their perspective, it requires that you see the whole story through the eyes of the protagonist named John, played by Adkins. Because we’re seeing it through his perspective, it wouldn’t allow for any other character to have as much screen time as that character. Like Jake Gittes moves through Chinatown, he comes in contact with other characters, and you never really know what anyone’s intentions are until you get to the end. That kind of structure allowed me to place Van Damme’s character, Luc Deveroux, in a more antagonistic role. He’s the Harry Lime of the movie. From minute one of the movie, the story is really about finding him, and discovering what he has become and what his intentions are. The truth of it all, by the end he is actually the protagonist. He’s the guy who the story is ultimately about. How we arrive there is through the vehicle of this other character, John.

djm: Scott Adkins is fantastic. As far as I’m concerned he’s one of the only new action guys who’s worth paying attention to. He told me he’d been considered to play a part in Regeneration, but for whatever reason that didn’t happen.

JH: I love him. Yeah, he was considered. His name came up when we were casting Regeneration. I think it was for the role that Mike Pyle ended up playing. For one reason or another, it didn’t work out. I remember being interested in him. There are a lot of factors at play when you’re doing these things. Money, what they can afford for each character, what’s put aside in the budget for everyone. So that idea didn’t last very long. At the time, I’d heard of him. I’d never seen a movie with him. I saw his highlights on the internet. After that movie, I was setting about writing the script for Day of Reckoning, and Scott had contacted me on Facebook. He told me that he saw Regeneration, and he liked what I’d done, and we had a lot of mutual friends and coworkers. He’d done the Undisputed movies in Bulgaria, and I’d worked in Bulgaria, so we’d worked with a lot of the same stunt guys. So we struck up a Facebook friendship, and I told him that I’d admired what I’d seen of his work, but that I’d never actually watched any of his films. He sent me the DVD of Undisputed III, and I was incredibly impressed by what he was able to do physically and athletically. But also, very impressed that he actually had acting chops. That’s always the thing when you’re dealing with these kinds of movies – do you go with someone who can execute choreography and do the moves, or do you go with someone who can dramatically handle the scenes? One way or another, you’re always tailoring the script and situations to fit the performer. But to me, it seemed by his performance in Undisputed III, by playing such an extreme character, I could see that he was very versatile. He could do a lot of things – dramatically and athletically. As we started going through the process of casting this movie, I remember thinking, “I really need an actor for this role.” I didn’t want a fighter or a stuntman, I wanted someone who could act, and if we would have to double him, then we would double him. I needed someone who could handle the role dramatically. The further along that road we went, I realized that we needed someone who could do both. Part of the allure of these movies is not just in dramatic performance, it’s also him fighting. We were kind of anointing another action star. If he’s going to be involved in this movie, it couldn’t just be another actor who we would double in the fight scenes. It reached a point where Scott Adkins was the only guy we could think of that could combine all these elements and was relatively unknown in the United States, which helped as well. We wanted the audience to have their own sense of discovery with him. When you see the movie, he’s not necessarily breaking out his repertoire until two-thirds into the movie. It was nice to watch him slowly reveal what he’s capable of as the movie progressed. Scott did a brilliant job, and he’s a real pleasure to work with. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever worked with. He’s an incredibly talented guy. He’s so prepared, and that’s when you realize that if he’s able to perform at that level, to do the kind of things that he does, you have to be prepared – not just dramatically, but physically. He’s basically a stuntman who can act. He’s both. That’s very rare.

djm: Scott has worked with both Jean-Claude and Dolph before on previous projects. Did they come to you beforehand and give him their blessing as a way of telling you he was able to handle the lead role?

JH: Yeah, everyone vouched for him. As much as they vouched for him, you still had to be sensitive with the idea that all these guys have a lot of pride in what they do, what they’ve done, and to have a fight in a movie where one guy loses to another guy, you know, people don’t realize the amount of politics that can go into getting someone to agree to lose in a fight onscreen to another person. So, there’re a lot of negotiations that have to go into all of that. A lot of trust is required because for someone like Dolph or JC to have to capitulate to another performer, especially a guy like Scott, it’s a guy who might be nipping at their heels if you looked at it one way… there has to be a lot of trust on a project like this and how it’s all going to go down for guys like Dolph and JC to allow that to happen. I mean, Jean-Claude’s done several movies with Scott, but in all of those, JC comes out on top.

djm: There aren’t many movies where Van Damme loses.

JH: Yeah. So, what you’ll see – and it’s not for me to say whether he wins or loses – just see it.

djm: You recently did another movie with Van Damme called Dragon Eyes that stars Cung Le. It’s a pretty good movie. Talk a little bit about it. 

JH: Dragon Eyes was a completely different story. I was down in Louisiana, prepping Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. It was taking a long time to get it off the ground. There were a lot of negotiations going on with the script, going over who was going to be in the movie, and I’m sure they were trying to get the money together. I was down there, and the only way they were going to keep me down there was that they had to employ me. I couldn’t afford to stay there, and they couldn’t afford to keep me there. So, Signature Pictures and After Dark had this partnership where they were doing a bunch of pictures, and Dragon Eyes was one of them. So they came to me. They had the script, they had the locations, they had Cung Le, they had Van Damme, it was all ready to go. They came to me and said, “We need this movie to get made. We want you to direct it.” The understanding was that it was something I would have to do in order to get Universal Soldier 4 made. It was a very condensed preparation schedule. Once we officially started prep, we had two weeks and then we were shooting, and the shoot was only 15 days, and they added a couple later. It was kind of the way you never want to go into something, but at the time it was a different kind of challenge for me. I’ve worked on condensed schedules before, and it was a chance to experiment with some things. Some technical ideas I’d been thinking about, I wanted to try these things out before I went out to make Day of Reckoning. It was a practice run. What happened was then I met Cung Le. I ended up talking to him, and I thought, “This guy is very committed to what he’s doing here.” He’s an incredibly hard working guy, a great guy. He’d been in a number of movies, and he’s also in The Man With the Iron Fists, which is going to be really good, but Dragon Eyes was a movie where he was going to be the lead, and he was going to be doing all the fight choreography. To me, it was a chance to work with this guy and realize his vision and get some people involved who would bring stuff to the table. It was a very different type of scenario. How could we tell this existing story and tell it in a way that’s maybe bringing a different flavor to the Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars story. We’ve seen this story before, so how do we do this story again that would make it stylistically different and just as entertaining as the previous versions. Same thing with Day of Reckoning.

djm: From what I’ve seen of Day of Reckoning, it doesn’t look or feel at all like what we’ve seen before.
JH: Right. That was the thought with Dragon Eyes. Stylistically, it’s much more of a comic book, graphic novel of a movie. It’s two-dimensional. Archetypal characters, archetypal themes. On one hand, we have hard-hitting action, on the other hand, quite stylized as well. I had no idea how it was going to turn out.

djm: Talk about working in the “vehicle” genre where the film is tailored to suit the skills and personas of the star or the athlete who wants to become an action star. Do you feel hindered by that, or do you embrace that sort of genre?

JH: With the opportunities that I’ve been given, I feel like these three movies I’ve done so far are a “three-movie” chapter of my life, also a contained chapter. I’m proud of this chapter, I’m very glad I had the opportunity to make them, and wherever my career goes those movies will be the basis for whatever happens next. My career will be based off of those. I think what they taught me is that you don’t always control the opportunities you have, and where you’re given those opportunities, you have to make the most of them to present to the world what kind of filmmaker you want to be perceived as. I do feel like whatever I do next is going to have to present something different that I didn’t present in those three movies. I can’t really go back and do the same kind of movie like Day of Reckoning again. It doesn’t mean I’ll go and do a romantic comedy next, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it. Every movie is a vehicle for someone. Whether it’s a vehicle for Tom Cruise or a vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme, or a vehicle for Aaron Sorkin’s script. In every movie, something is the star that needs to be served. Hopefully, what your goal as a director is to be in a position one day where your contribution is what people are interested in seeing more than anything else. I am in a bit of a crossroads right now. I don’t want to be heading in a direction of irrelevance. I need to do something for a different reason now. I need to do something different.

djm: That’s what I’ve found interesting about your dad’s career. He’s done all kinds of movies.

JH: Yeah, he’s done comedies, action movies … even early in his career he did dramas. The first thing he ever wrote, T.R. Baskin, was about a single woman living in the city, and it was a very different kind of story. In his mind, I think he’s always had the philosophy that he can direct any kind of movie. It didn’t matter what it was.

djm: Is there anything else you’d like to say to fans of the Universal Soldier franchise?

JH: Universal Soldier 4: Day of Reckoning… I want people to see this movie with an open mind. As I alluded to before, this isn’t a definitive statement. This isn’t the only story that can be told from this mythology. This franchise is bigger than me. It’s probably even bigger than the actors in it. It’s a set of characters. Just like Batman is bigger than Christian Bale. What I’m bringing to this storyline is obviously what interested me. If I look at Regeneration and Day of Reckoning, the parts of the story that interested me the most were the stories of the monsters themselves. To me, the true villain of Regeneration was the government scientist who created these monsters and played God. They created an enslaved race. I became very interested in the existential dilemma of the creation of someone that was created to be as human as possible but there’s always something keeping them from experiencing things like the rest of us do. I thought that was an interesting area to explore. “Is there something missing, is there some kind of void in my soul?” In the case of Day of Reckoning, we’re dealing with something where they literally have a void in their souls. They might not be aware of it, but it’s about the process of discovering it. It’s going to be about these characters coming into conflict with each other, but the root of the story has to come from someplace that is meaningful to you as a storyteller and as an audience. This is not the only story that can be told in this universe, but it is a story that can be told. It’s just the story I wanted to tell.

Many thanks to John Hyams for taking the time for this interview.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning arrived on Video on Demand in North America this week ahead of a limited theatrical release on November 30th.

david j. moore is a contributing writer to Fangoria, FilmFax, Lunchmeat and VideoScope Magazines. His book WORLD GONE WILD: A SURVIVOR’S GUIDE TO POST-APOCALYPTIC MOVIES will be published in late 2013.

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  • Great interview. You can definitely see a trajectory of improvement in John Hyams' last three movies, and I really enjoyed Day of Reckoning. In fact, for my money it's probably the best of the Universal Soldier films. I'll keep an eye out for what he'll be doing next.