No that makes sense. The “too many cooks in the kitchen” analogy is a great descriptor.
It sort of works. It’s more about your decision-making process itself being infringed. You just have to warrant it to these people. “You want him to have a scar on his face?” And now, on the low budget film, I’m talking to the financier and I say “he has a scar, it’s going to look great.” I convince him. On the bigger one, you convince one person, and then you have to convince another and another and they say “well, why can’t we make it a smaller scar? How about it’s a scratch? We’ll go for the scratch.” They go back and hop out four days later “what we’d really like is just a small scratch on his cheek.” And so now this vivid scar has become a scratch because they’re worried it’s going to affect your leading man.
This is the issue that I’m talking about when you’re dealing with a lot of people. But again, if you have a powerful producer, and I have a very good one in Deborah Del Prete who’s my manager and creative partner. She goes in there and does battle with these guys and she can continue to do battle even when I have to go back out and work again. So, you can make it work, and I think when I did that I was probably on my own at that point, and it’s a trickier process- I was fighting on two fronts, and you do get frantic.
That story reminded me of something an actress I interviewed once said, about how an entire day of pre-production was wasted just debating what kind of hair she should have for the role by the producers, so I have an idea about that in-house fighting that goes on, and I’m glad that you’re at a point in your career where you can essentially be calling the shots.
Each time you set up a movie, you have a new boss and a new set of financiers, and they all require different things, and you either bend to meet their will or you fight or you have an intermediate. It’s an interesting thing, it’s very much an evolving thing. You learn a lot about yourself and your ability to deal with people when you’re making movies. It’s wonderful. I’m blessed that I can do it and survive.
I have been lucky enough to watch some truly in credible “games-men” work magic on producers. The great directors are great in many respects not because their $100 million movie succeeded, but because they got $100 Million to make their movie, that was their major accomplishment, it is less difficult to make a good movie with $100 Million than it is to find the money in the first place.
And I have to say, I really love how there’s this acting/martial arts community that comes together for all these movies that are produced. You know you have all the greats- Tony Jaa, Tiger Chen, Scott Adkins, Ray Park, Michael Jai White. What’s it like to be a part of this group? Is it like a family at this point?
Scott and I have worked very well together, he has brought out the best in me, and I would like to think he has delivered some of his best acting work with me. By the way it’s three of us: for all of Scott’s movies it’s been myself, Scott, and Stu Small the writer. Scott has worked with Stu with his dialogue, and Stu has either written the whole script or has taken my script and rewritten it. He’s an intrinsic part of the deal, but he hides from the public [laughs]. He doesn’t like it for some reason, but every time people say “it’s Scott and Jesse’s film,” I try and add Stu in there as well because it definitely is the three of us who battle when we do these scripts. And it gets heated quite often when we’re discussing story, which is really fun, and we all laugh at it, but we’re three very opinionated people and it is a little bit like a dysfunctional family because we know no one is actually ever going to walk away from it. You disagree passionately, and then the next day one of us will come up with a way to compromise or not. It’s been fantastic.
Now with the other lads, I have less experience working with them. I did the one film, and they were all wonderful; there was no problem at all. We were very lucky on Triple Threat as we had a lot of type-A’s, highly competitive personalities, and I wasn’t 100% sure how that was going to play out because ego is always a factor when you’re dealing with athletes, and actors regardless. And I love it and I encourage it- ego is where charisma comes from, the same spot in the human Id. An actor without ego is usually not terribly interesting to watch on screen unfortunately.
So I encouraged it, but I was concerned that we had a secret weapon that mentally kept everyone in check, and his name was Mike Bisping. And he literally did not let anyone get out of check, it was brilliant. At the time he was the World Champion, but he did it in a funny way and just sort of riffed them a little bit and everyone had a little giggle. And because of the nature of who everyone was, they were quite happy to fall in behind him as sort of the type-A alpha.
There was a lot of storytelling, a lot of jokes. Pretty much everyday that we had a big cast call, meaning all of them on set. I had to tell them to stop laughing between shots because they were joking and telling stories and it was getting noisy. It was a really really brilliant shoot, and people worked extraordinarily hard. There was a lot of bruising and scratches and just the general wearand-tear of self-sacrifice in terms of pushing it to the limit was amazing. Scott literally takes it as a personal challenge to not wear out before anyone else has worn out. I think he’s operating at an Olympian physical standard when it comes to these fight scenes, which by the way are more difficult than the real fights are as far as I’m concerned. I’ve done a few in my short career as a stuntman and they’re brutally difficult because you’re doing the same thing over-and-over and there’s a stress factor involved in the cinematography, making sure you don’t accidentally knock someone out or get knocked out. So it really was a privilege to work with them all on that. Jeeja Yanin was like a machine when she came to set and did her fight. It’s very very cool. Celina Jade was also right in the mix everyday, and did all of her own stunt driving, which was incredible as well as terrifying.
No, I’m glad to hear all that. I’m always happy when people get along.
It’s funny, I hadn’t even thought about it actually, Red, until you just mentioned it. I mean to be honest, all of these fight movies that I’ve directed where we’ve had big boys, I believe they’ve always been the most ego-less film sets that I’ve ever been on, you know? Maybe it’s because there’s so much physical fighting going on that people are just spent by the time it actually comes to sit down and they just want to be friendly. It’s been a brilliant experience.
Now, with Triple Threat, what’s interesting is you didn’t write the script yourself. What’s the biggest difference between you directing a movie you wrote versus one where you didn’t? Does it affect the filming process at all?
Joey O’Bryan worked very, very hard on a script in a short amount of time. We took that script, the producer Mike Selby and I, and rewrote it in Thailand each night, and basically tuned it around what our cast could do, making sure that everyone got to show what they could do and that there were levels of action in there that Thailand can offer and that were embraced, though you wouldn’t really know that unless you work in Thailand. And the script came about that wayit wasn’t ideal, but it was very artistically rewarding. It was insanely hard work. But we had an awesome script every morning and the actor’s worked off it, and learned it, and were good, and the film is pretty fantastic. It’s really a lot of fun. It works on an exciting visceral level.
But yeah, it was a tough one.
Well that just goes to show how important credits are. And I know from reading past interviews of yours that you always try and make sure the script is solid before filming, which I respect a lot because I feel that direct-to-DVD action films unfortunately have a bad rep these days because they’re sometimes just used as a vehicle by older actors to cash in on quick sales. But your films have gotten consistently good reviews, and I feel that has to do with you making sure you have that good script before you start shooting. I know it took over 10 years to get this project made because of various issues, but how much would you be willing to put off a project until you got the screenplay right?
Not too long. Debt Collector was a very difficult film to finance. It was initially set-up with Jean-Claude Van Damme in the lead, and we had lots and lots of meeting with Van Damme. And then, I hadn’t directed at the time, at the last minute he changed his mind and wanted Ringo Lam to do it. The cost of the script was an enormous amount of money, and that ended that one. So from that point on it sort of bounced around Michael Rooker and Burt Reynolds, and I’m sort of glad it didn’t, because I think it was just really fun to do it with Louis Mandylor and Scott Adkins, I think it worked beautifully. Scott was the one who came up and said “remember that script we talked about 10 years ago? It might be great.” And that was how it went.
I didn’t really put it off per say. To be honest, regarding your question, Most things can be fixed in a couple of weeks. You knuckle down and it’s usually a lot quicker than that, especially if you’ve got the luxury of being able to spend your entire day fixing the screenplay, which is wonderful and I’ve had that once or twice- truly getting that opportunity to do the best work possible, and that’s killer when you can do that. But it’s a rare scenario. Normally you’re weaving away in your spare time.
But yeah, if it couldn’t be fixed in a week or two, then you’ve got big issues: the issues are usually bigger than the script, like you’ve got the wrong actor or wrong location or too small amount of money to make the film. I feel that I’ve done movies in the past that were great scripts that were poorly produced, and that’s the worst. I remember my first film was a terrific script that was just wrecked by bad production. You know they came into the edit room and the producers re-edited it without my consent, and the film ended up being an absolute pale shadow of itself. And that was truly heartbreaking, and it was a big lesson as well not to trust people who do things like that.
I’ve had one or two other occasions in my career where I’ve had scripts that I felt were good that weren’t reflected by the final product. The Last Sentinel was an interesting script, but for a couple of reasons it didn’t work as a movie.
So these things happen in your career, and you try not to make the same mistake twice you know? You wonder, on each project, that you’ve hopefully mastered the knowledge of pitfalls and you try and avoid them and do your very best, but you usually end up making the same mistake at least three times.
No, that’s intriguing to hear how your experiences have shown you the different sides of the industry, and that it’s formulated your perspective moving forward. So I’m glad to hear that even the negative experiences have born some successful fruit in your career.
My last question has to do with piracy. You and Mr. Adkins have talked about it extensively and how it has been hurting this particular market of the film industry. For example I know that The Expendables 3 took a huge hit box office wise when it was leaked. Are there any tips you would give consumers, outside of obviously paying for a product, that they can do to fight piracy?
I don’t know how you do it, just don’t do it you know? Just realize that, when you a rip a film, you’re hurting the very films that you love. And it’s very frustrating because Scott has this enormous following, and I just have to believe that at least 50 percent of them are not paying to see the movies, because it doesn’t quantify. The results, even if half his fans paid to see the film just once, we’d be entering the realm of studio-name actor with regard to the kind of profits these films should be turning, and the fact that they aren’t turning those profits means that those people are downloading them illegally.
And it’s heartbreaking because he has a land-swell of fans who love his movies- it’s four times the amount of people that most of the big-name actors that we’re competing with have. But some of his guys, for some reason, don’t pay to see the movie, and it’s heartbreaking because I want to see him succeed. We can all rise because the films, I think at this point, are starting to compete on a technical and a quality level with everything else that has been made out there.
But it’s frustrating because these films are hurt and hurt badly. But I think things like Netflix are becoming more standardized- it’s a lot easier to watch the films that are coming out straightaway, so maybe that’s the way to do it. I just believe that we have to make much bigger movies that people desperately want to go and see in the theater. The experience is just so much better in the theater that you don’t want to see it downloaded, and if you do you’re a lame-ass anyway.
That’s my aim. I’m just going to start making them so wildly ambitious and fantastic and huge that that’s the way to enjoy them best, and people will say “no, you’ve got to see this in theaters, it’s not worth it seeing it on your computer or your laptop.” That’s my personal, or rather naive solution.
No, and that makes sense. That’s the reason why blockbusters tend to be successful- even though the indie scene may take a hit, the blockbusters make money.
Right, who wants to see Avatar on their laptop, who wants to see Fast Five on their laptop, who wants to see these big powerful explosive pictures on the small screen? And for me, for the time-being, that’s where I want to go; I’ll make them so tasty and so wonderful that that’s the best environment to see the film on, you know?
I’m referring back to your previous comment, a lot of the direct-to-DVD style of movies that are out there at the moment are truly atrociously made, and it’s embarrassing and I want to get away from that as quickly as possible. The majority of them are cored around the catalyst of a main actor, be it Nicolas Cage or Bruce Willis or Al Pacino appearing on the schedule for a day or two. And the poor director, and the director may have some talent, I don’t know, but you wouldn’t see it if they had because they’ve got to shoot their leading man out in one day, and then cut and surround the whole movie using body doubles to shoot over the shoulder. And this is not the way to make a good movie, this has never been the way to make a good movie, and there is not a good movie that has been made that way.
So these are films that are made to sell as quickly as possible to a foreign market. They are not films that are made for quality, and this is the main reason that the genre gets such a bad rap: because they are truly execrable, execrable movies that are coming out of it that are dreadful. The fans are widely disappointed and never going to give a low-budget action film a go again, and that hurts everyone. I know everyone involved makes money from it, but this is a scenario that is ever-decreasing. It’s like a snake that eats its own tail. So you have to work very very hard as far, as I’m concerned, to take the film away from that genre and turn it into something else that stands on its own merits.
No I agree entirely, and to your earlier point, I definitely do think streaming services are going to help curb this problem, because of the easy access and lower entrance cost compared to movie tickets. And I do hope it gets resolved through these measures because there are talented people like you Mr. Johnson who actually put sweat, blood, and tears into creating something genuinely good. So I wish you the best of luck in your career sir. Thank you so much again for speaking with me.
Thank you very much, thank you for the interest!
Flickering Myth would like to thank Mr. Johnson for sitting down with us. Triple Threat is set for an unspecified release date this year, while The Debt Collector is currently available on YouTube Movies, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, Netflix, and DVD and Blu-ray.
Special thanks to The Warrior Agency for making this interview possible!