Red Stewart chats with Jesse V. Johnson about Triple Threat…
Jesse V. Johnson is an English filmmaker and stunt coordinator who has been working in the film and television industries since the 1990s. He is best known for his projects Savage Dog, Accident Man, and The Debt Collector, as well as helping with the stunts for movies like Starship Troopers and The Amazing Spider-Man. Flickering Myth had the privilege to interview him, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it.
So, I had the opportunity to talk to Scott Adkins back when Accident Man was coming out, and I want to ask you a question that I asked him because I know you do extensive coordination in the stunt industry. In the last few years, we have lost a couple of brave individuals who did irreplaceable work, John Bernecker on The Walking Dead and SJ Harris on Deadpool 2. I was wondering, what are some initiatives that the industry can take to prevent future tragedies from happening?
I mean it is, by definition, a difficult job. I think it’s unfortunately part of what goes with it. Both of those were very well-run, well-coordinated, safety-conscious shows by some top guys in the game. I don’t know that I would be qualified to comment on either one and say that they could have done, or I might have done, anything differently, you know? You work as safely as possible and you push the boundaries every time. These guys work very hard to make these projects look as exciting as possible. And within that, there are risks being taken, and they try to mitigate the danger as much as possible, but it is a dangerous game at the end of the day
And I have been very lucky that I have had a flawless safety record with the action that I have coordinated or directed. But I’m not so obnoxiously big-headed to say that it can’t change at any moment should the wrong set of conditions occur.
I understand, it’s different factors for different movies. I guess it always bothers me because, yes, movies are a huge investment by production companies, but at the end of the day their purpose is for entertainment. So it’s always saddening to hear when a stunt performer dies because they died for the sake of entertainment. From an outsider’s perspective, that’s how it seems to me at least.
Yeah, making movies in general is dangerous when you’re on set. It’s not just stuntmen, it’s people from all departments, you know like cameramen, the riggers, and the underwater guys: they’re all risking their lives, one way or the other, to make the movies as good as possible and to get that shot. There’s a desperate need and a sense of pride attached.
It’s a risky endeavor making action movies- there’s no set of rules, there’s no standardization of criteria that go into making a high fall or a fire burn or even a flat fall or a stair fall safe. There are certain precautions you can take each time, but every stunt brings new challenges and a slightly different set of conditions, and you just have to think on your toes.
Everyone who is a performer and a coordinator and an assistant and a safety person are all watching and all contributing and all giving their perspective on it. And you hope that, with everything combined, no one is going to get hurt, but there is always that element in there.
You’re absolutely right. I hadn’t thought about the inherent dangers present in filmmaking, like a cameraman hanging out of a car during an automobile scene. There are risks everywhere.
Every once in a while it’s worth stopping and taking a long mature look at what you’re about to do, free of adrenaline, and the rush to complete the day, and really just focus on your own longevity. I mean, many, many people have died making movies, but it just shouldn’t be that way. Sometimes you find yourself being the voice of reason.
These things happen, and as you get older, you see more accidents and you read more about it and you learn more, and the more of these stunts we do, the more we realize. Myself and my coordinator, I push him very hard to get me dangerous shots- I’ll push him extraordinarily hard and he’ll push back and say “no, this we can’t do without endangering someone. The risk factor is not what we want Jesse. You don’t want to do this shot, it’s going to hurt someone, and that’s not good for any of us.” They will take it right to the very edge of what is safe. You want the film to be different, to have something in it that feels different. And then you also want to make sure that the shot plays in the movie that and that no one has wasted their time.
When I first came out to the states in the 90s, most TV directors were not terribly ambitious, they were efficient and economic, but not artistic in the theatrical sense, it wasn’t like TV now which is an art form in and of itself. Back then it was very, very basic and you’d have second unit directors that would simply place the camera on the action. And a lot of the time, you’d bust yourself doing a stunt, and run over with excitement to watch the playback, and it was just bland, awful stuff! It’s like, where did the communication break down? [laughs].
And those are the directors we don’t want to be like that. That is the living embodiment of what I don’t want to be. If anyone is going to take a risk and do something, you want to make sure that it looks wonderful and that it’s shown in the picture and the audience gets to feel it, gets a nice visceral thrill out of it and throws the popcorn in the air and realizes intrinsically they’re seeing something that has not been created from digital effects and animation- that they’re actually seeing something that is for real.
It is exciting. They get their moneys worth, and ultimately we are giving people a thrill; we’re giving people enjoyment for those two hours, taking them somewhere and whisking them away. Whatever the story is when they return, hopefully it stays with them a little while. But for sure, they don’t feel like that they have wasted two hours.
All those stories you told were fascinating. It definitely changes my perspective on the overarching issue, and I’m glad that the industry has taken a lot of extra steps to ensure that safety is prioritized, and hopefully no more consecutive tragedies happen in the future.
One of the things I noticed when I read over your IMDB page was the sheer diversity. I mean you’ve done production design, camera operating, producing, and of course writing and directing. How important was it, for you as a filmmaker, to have this extensive experience and knowledge in the other departments?
It’s been inordinately helpful as a director. But when I came out to the states, it was merely helpful to pay the rent [laughs].
You know, what we had to do, because everything was less computer run back then, you’d have the map of Los Angeles and you’d have The Hollywood Reporter to show what was gearing up for production. And you’d have your four of five resumes as an assistant whatever and you’d drive from location to production office to production office and ask “what have you got going?” And you would literally just keep working, earning about $100/day. And that’s how I kept the lights on, that was how I survived in Los Angeles when I first arrived, working 6-7 jobs back to back, everyone I knew did. You’d find some that were more fun than others. For example, I really enjoyed designing sets: I didn’t love working on constructing them, but I actually loved designing sets and building them and running the department, communicating with producers about budget- it was very close to directing. You’re not dealing with actors in any way, shape or form, but you’re dealing with every other aspect of the look of the film. And I enjoyed that, but it was all time-consuming: you’d be gone for three months at a time, and at the end of it, you wouldn’t have much money and you’d have to get another job.
I’d come from a family of stuntmen, and I knew that that paid better on a daily wage, and so I started training. I had trained either way intrinsically for stunt work, and I made the shift to stunts which, at the time, allowed me to work a day or two a month and pay all of my bills, which in turn gave me the opportunity to pursue writing time, office time, hustling, telephone calls, meetings, and all those things. It costs money to direct. You’ll put a year into getting a film off the ground, and you’ll be filming, shooting, and editing for six months, and whatever lifestyle you have has to be geared around survival between gigs.
So I learned that those rather more, below-the-line jobs just don’t work, because you didn’t have enough money at the end of them to get your project into being. But as far as them being a type of film school, practical film school, they were fantastic. I can build sets when it comes down to it, and I know what goes on down there and can make sure everything is as it should be. It has been very helpful in the industry, especially useful in lower budget films. You run into a situation more than once where a producer says “it’s impossible, it can’t be done, you can’t do this for the money” and you sit down and you say “well, this is how we’re going to do it. Here’s the storyboard and it starts here, and you have green screen there, and the actor just doesn’t pass in front of it and you’ve got it.” And it’s just the most wonderful feeling when you look around the room and you see all these faces that were horrified suddenly turn so satisfied [laughs].
And you’re onto the next problem. So it has been wonderful to have those experiences because it really is a big thing, making a film.
And I have to say, I love your personal tale. I genuinely appreciate those working-class, American Dream-type stories where someone starts off on a lower position, and slowly builds up and makes a name for themselves, like you’ve done Mr. Johnson.
I took the lowest jobs on a film set, the absolute lowest where they were- sweeping up cigarette ends or being the guy who shouts “rolling and cut” two miles from the main unit, I’ve done them, I’ve lived that experience. And it makes it fun. It was only after 3, 4, 5 years of solid graft that I found my first stunt acting gig, and your luck turns around very quickly. I think in Los Angeles it turns around a little more quickly than in other parts of the world. America, certainly in California, embrace the American Dream in the spirit of “you can do it” in a way that really isn’t quite the same in other countries.
But yeah, it’s been a fun one. I don’t know if I would recommend it. My daughter is becoming a director, and we had long conversations and I ended up putting her through film school. And she’s enjoying it and thriving and she’s able to make the films that don’t necessarily have to be successful commercially and make those decisions. I did once, and I didn’t work for a year [laughs]. I did a black and white film, which I thought would be a great idea.
Well, speaking of that, you talked about budgets and how you want to keep the costs down to keep producers happy. I remember reading in an interview you did where you said that the higher the budget gets, the greater the chance of artistic infringement. Could you talk a little more about what you meant by that?
It’s a pretty generalized comment that one, and I’m guilty of that more than once I’m sure. When you don’t have a lot of money to deal with, you have less people to answer to. Maybe one person you have to convince that this is worthwhile, and you go off and do that. When you have more money, and bigger names, and there’s a lot going on, you have a boardroom of people you have to convince that this is worthwhile, unless you work with a very good producer who does that convincing for you. But, ultimately, you are convincing more people, and you’re having to hold their hand because people are very safe when they’re making movies. They’re a lot safer than you may think- they’re very nervous. People don’t have an awful lot of imagination, they don’t have a lot of daring.
Movies are gambles, they’re enormous, enormous gambles. And when you’re doing the bigger pictures, there are a lot of people who are very nervous and they don’t want to do that. They want to do something that they’ve seen before, that seems safe. Often times, the safe route is the absolute worst possible choice imaginable, but they want to do it because they think that’s going to be a surefire route to success. Sometimes it is, sometimes you’re wrong. Sometimes the studio is correct; sometimes the committee came up with the better idea. But at the end of the day it is an art form, and an art form is usually better when it’s one person’s point-of-view. It can be tough sometimes you know.
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