MAAC Exclusive Interview: AVENGEMENT Director JESSE V. JOHNSON

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MAAC sits down with director Jesse V. Johnson (Triple Threat) to discuss his partnership with martial arts star Scott Adkins and their latest action thriller Avengement!

MAAC: Hello Jesse, it is great to have this opportunity to speak to you again! First off, we want to say thank you so much for your time. We have noticed that you have partnered up with leading man Scott Adkins for the past few projects including Accident Man, The Debt Collector and of course the excellent Triple Threat. And now with Avengement, this film marks your sixth collaboration with Adkins if we are not mistaken. Can you tell us a bit about how your partnership came about and what makes you guys work so well together?

Jesse V. Johnson: I had been introduced to Scott at the beginning of my directing career by a director named Isaac Florentine who was a huge, huge fan of Scott. They would actually talked him into going to the US – they had been trying to put films together. I had a script that had been floating around town. It had got me an agent and had been sold – auctioned a bunch of times but no one could actually quite make it. Isaac wanted to make the film, it’s called Debt Collector, with Scott. He had tried to get it made, but it was a very difficult film to finance at the time because it had a lot of talking. It had fun action in it and everyone liked it, but the lead characters were killed at the end and I think that turned everyone off. Regardless, I had sat down and met with Scott and talked with Isaac, who is a phenomenal human being, a very cool guy, and an interesting director. 

A month or so later I got my first break as a director on a film called Pit Fighter and Scott was in town so I had him come down and play a small part on that. We goofed around and it was a very, very fast film. It was one of those films that was shot in 13 days and unfortunately, in many ways sometimes looks like it was shot in 13 days, which was a problem. Regardless, it was my first film and Scott was there and had a significant role. 

We had been talking through the subsequent 10 or 15 years about doing another film together, but could never find the right project or the right script until a picture called Savage Dog came along. It worked for him, timing-wise and script-wise, and it worked for me. We shot that and had a blast. It was very, very stressful, but it went very well. 

From that point, we realized that we enjoyed working together and had a lot of the same views on films and characters and drama and internationals of work and crews. You just find that you have things in common with a person, which is strange because we come from very different backgrounds. Scott’s dad was a butcher and my family were blacksmiths who put horseshoes on horses – very unassuming and not intellectual. 

It is a funny business and you find yourself working with a lot of very different people, so when you run into people who have a similar sensibility you stick to it. From that point we have worked very well and push each other hard. He is tremendously talented and pushes me when he thinks I’m slacking. When I feel that he’s done something that he could do better, we have a way of doing it where the other person doesn’t get defensive, which is tricky when you work a lot in the business. We’ve just found that work seems to get better each time and we don’t allow ourselves to do things that are compromising to the story or film and it becomes quite enjoyable pushing with someone else rather than trying to get them to march to the beat of your own drum or psychologically trying to unravel them so you can put them back together on film. 

Scott and I have worked it out so it’s more about the movie each time – the production, the action sequences, the character arc, the dialogue, the supporting actors, the editorial, the music we’re going to use – and he’s very involved. He should have a producer credit and should probably have a writing credit as well. Like me, there’s one credit he cares about – which is let’s get the film done. I really enjoy working with him. We should also mention Stu Small who is the writer that works with Scott who we have on each of these pictures as well. He’s intrinsic and our same editor that we use each time. It’s a very tight group that works extraordinarily efficiently. I think that’s one of the biggest things we look for in Hollywood is a group of people who all want to work together. We all work hard and no one in that group is motivated by money as a primary factor. We’re all motivated by it, of course, but not as a primary incentive. We all want to make the best possible film and that’s an interesting thing that’s surprisingly rare.     

MAAC: What was it like to go from an all-star ensemble film like Triple Threat to a more personal lower budget film like Avengement? How was your mindset as a director different going into this film?

Jesse V. Johnson: That’s a really interesting question. The mindset doesn’t actually differ very much at all. The pure mechanics change a little bit because on Triple Threat each one of those characters required a close up so your days are just immensely long dealing with everyone’s coverage because in certain scenes we had between six and eight characters who required a close up. We just had to pace ourselves through all of this and making sure any improvisation is matching. We did alternate takes. I also had four actors whose language was definitely not English and, in certain scenes, had to nurse them through their dialogue as well. That required a certain sort of leniency. 

With Avengement we had a much, much tighter shooting schedule. Having said that, the coverage was much quicker. We only ever really had two characters as the focus of a scene. We did have the Greek chorus in the pub, but that was easy to cover quickly because we did it in a wide screen. Basically, it was one guy shouting at another guy as opposed to Triple Threat where it was six to eight talking heads. It was just a blast. 

There was a lot of mechanics that had to go into the planning of Triple Threat, which I got out of doing on Avengement. There was quite a lot of improvisation and was slightly more relaxed atmosphere in terms of how the dialogue and coverage went as well as eye lines. We had the most complicated eye lines imaginable on Triple Threat. The moment one character looked past six people you had to then get that perspective of the six people who looked back at the character that had just spoken. We had several cameras, but it was a vast amount of coverage to make an interesting looking movie. You’d be bogged down in a scene for Avengement which would take an hour, but we’d be bogged down shooting for a day or day and a half on Triple Threat. It was a completely different mindset in terms of mechanics, but in terms of actual artistry of telling a story there’s no difference at all.  We just focused on serving that plot. The story becomes your ego and everything has to serve that. You listen to ideas and you follow your shot list, watch the camera and your own clock, watch the AV and pull it together. 

MAAC: You’ve created such a memorable character in “Cain Burgess” and Adkins brought him to life with a little bit of “Boyka” sprinkled into him. Even though he have some similarities to “Boyka”, at the same time he is very unique in his own right. What was your goal in creating this character and was the role always meant to be for Adkins?

Jesse V. Johnson: No, there were a couple of other actors potentially before Scott. The most interesting thing about the character, for me, was seeing the story told in an interesting way of a person who went through hell and how that affects him – the scars, both mental and physical – and form him into a different character altogether. In terms of the way we told the story, you saw the end result before you saw the “before” picture. I found that very interesting. 

With regard to how to create that when you’re on set and when you’re in pre-production it’s always about honesty. I know that sounds weird when you’re dealing with a martial arts movie set in East London, but the honesty is listening to what feels or looks fake and what feels organic. It’s the small things sometimes – would a real person actually say that? Would a person actually stand there and look at them that way? What would this guy be wearing? What’s the way a real person would react to this situation? 

Just sitting there by the camera trying to listen – I don’t like watching monitors and trying to decide. I’ve never done that. I sit next to the camera and I watch the monitor on the camera and listen to the actors. For me, as a director, I don’t care who gets the script credit. My job, as a director, is to listen and to guide, if necessary, performance and say when it’s becoming unbelievable or good and helping steer that into something that is as believable and truthful as possible. It’s really that simple. We wanted to make Cain as interesting and believable a character as you could to watch for an hour and a half and be invested in. That was my challenge with this one. 

MAAC: The film featured some great hard-hitting, violent action. Did the fight crew purposely made the fights less stylized and more straight forward and brutal? What was the idea behind the action choreography of the film?

Jesse V. Johnson: I have done tons and tons of choreography and action directing and I don’t like to do them on my films because it takes too much energy. I’ll script it out, I’ll talk to the fight choreographers and stunt men to describe exactly what I want and don’t want. I let them come up with it and I watch it. I watch the rehearsals and what they’ve video taped and work with Scott. He has an awful lot of say in that sort of thing. He knows what he wants and what he doesn’t. At that point when we’ve all decided what we want we give it the thumbs up and then it’s whatever changes happen on set. 

Sometimes the locations differ or if we have a different idea and need to shoot a little quicker – basically you’re relying on the rehearsal that you’ve shot ahead of time. For my part, I want to be brutally violent and realistic. I did not want to see a lot of big, technical martial arts skills in it because it’s not realistic. I did want to go ten percent fantasy on top of what was a real fight. Real fighters duck punches, fall on the floor, which turns into hair pulling, scratching, and kicking in reality. It’s rare that people face up and it looks anything remotely like a film fight. Once in a very rare while it does happen, but for the most part a real fight is a terribly unglamorous and boring thing to watch. It’s un-cinematic to be honest so you need to have that ten percent fantasy. 

I wanted them to be violent and shocking in that respect. In the final fight it was Scott’s idea to not have music at all and I think it’s a brilliant idea. I loved it. I kidded him and told him we’d put orchestra and he got so upset he was almost going to fly himself over to make sure we took the music out before I actually told him that it was a joke. An awful lot of thought goes into this and Scott and I like cause and effect, which means in a fight where there’s a lot of people punching and kicking each other there’s no effect, just cause. When there’s cause and effect it means there’s a mix, something gets broken. A glass gets splattered with blood or a sink gets shattered by a human head or a plate or bottles get smashed. That’s cause and effect. The more of that has the more visceral it feels and the more the audience participates and gets involved, in my opinion. We thought very hard on how to do that. There were some serious challenges for our poor art department, the resulted breakaways are quite expensive and we broke a lot of breakaways on this movie.   

MAAC: You definitely bring the best out of Adkins with his memorable performance as “Cain Burgess”, not just as a martial artist but as an “actor”. We heard news that you guys may be ready to collaborate AGAIN for the follow-up to Accident Man. That film had such a great mix of humor and action, we can not wait to see those characters back on screen. Can you give us some confirmation on the project and when we can expect Accident Man 2 to start rolling?

Jesse V. Johnson: I actually spoke to the producers yesterday. They’re looking to support the end of the year. I don’t know and with all things to do with movies, you really don’t know until you’re on set screaming and yelling. At that point you can confirm that it’s actually happening. There’s definitely been a big thumbs up on that. Thank you David for all of those lovely things you said at the beginning of the question. 

It’s very lucky working with Scott and that I’ve found a partner who is as excited as I am about making films in this genre. He pushes himself as hard as anyone pushes him. Ultimately, he’s his own driving force and Cain is very much his creation. With regards to the humor, that is something I have learned since being with Scott. The first time we did a little bit in Savage Dog, then we did a little bit more in Accident Man and found that it really worked very well. I think the problem with a lot of these movies is that they take themselves too seriously, and at the end of the day a martial arts movie is the most unrealistic thing in the entire world. There’s almost no conceivable way of making a martial arts with the exception of a tournament movie where people are fighting in a ring that’s actually believable and close to what would happen in reality. 

By injecting a little bit of humor into it, like the early “James Bond” films did, you’re suddenly allowing people to have a little giggle and they know they’re on this fantastical trip anyway, but now they know it’s something they can enjoy and have fun with. The advent of comedy in my movies, which came from working with Scott, has been enormously beneficial in telling these stories. We had less of it in Avengement than we have had in the past. There’s still a little bit of black humor in there and I think it’s something that Scott does very well. Certainly that does come more from Stu and Scott than it does from my writing. They take paths that inject more humor into it then when I read it I think, “does this really work in this film?” Then you see how it’s performed and it’s like hey this isn’t bad, I get it! There have been quite a few moments like that. I enjoy what they’ve done to my work, which I feel was probably a little overly serious when I look back. I think a little light heartedness really works when you’re dealing with a subject matter as serious as mortal revenge and blackmail and interfamilial attempted murder.   

MAAC: Heck, since we’re talking sequels, how about a “Quadruple Threat” film? That 2-on-1 fight between Adkins, Iko Uwais, and Tony Jaa was mind-blowing and it shows why these guys are the best of the best at what they do. We can not wait to see more and fans are crossing their fingers for a follow-up for sure!

Jesse V. Johnson: I would love to. I probably had one of the best times in my entire life in Korea working on Triple Threat. I enjoyed every one of those actors, the locations, and the experience of working on that movie more than I care to admit. It was a really, really fun experience. I don’t know if there will be a Triple Threat part two. I am less familiar of the groundings of how that film was put together. I think, in many respects, it came at a particularly perfect time when everyone was available. That was extraordinarily difficult for the producers to schedule it in a way that made sense. We rushed and I know the shooting was very, very complicated. We had one actor for five days then we would lose him for a week then we would get him another week and we had to make it look like they were all in the same room together. It was quite complex and I’m not sure that we’d pull it off again, but if we were that would be wonderful and I’d love to be involved in it. It was fun. 

Avengement is equally brilliant in terms of what Scott pulls off. In many regards it’s almost a more challenging character for him and I think it offers rewards in other ways.    

MAAC: After working with the likes of Adkins, Uwais, Jaa, Michael Jai White, Tiger Chen…just to name a few. Is there any other martial arts action powerhouse actor that you are still dying to work with?

Jesse V. Johnson: Absolutely. There’s Daniel Bernhardt and Mark Dacascos are the two cats that I like an awful lot and would really like to work with. I’d like to work with Marko Zaror again. I worked with him before but didn’t quite understand where his strengths led. I think I could probably do something very, very fun with him given a second time around. I’ve been very lucky working with people who want to create and are good collaborators who love the work. Obviously there’s Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and Chow Yun Fat whose movies I loved growing up. I’d kill to work with Jackie Chan, but the truth is that it’s very tough to schedule these films and make them all work. It’s often who’s available at any one time that gets it. 

I love working with actors who want to collaborate and want to make the best film possible. I got very, very lucky with Triple Threat. I’ve been very fortunate with my collaboration with Scott that we can make pictures like Avengement, Accident Man, and Debt Collector. These are off the wall and slightly quirky films. Ehud Bleiberg, who has financed quite a few of these, and who has executively produced with me is certainly someone who has been instrumental for both Scott and I because he has the trust to let us go out and make these pictures which is no small thing in this day in age.

MAAC: If “Cain Burgess” (from Avengement), “Mike Fallon” (from Accident Man), and “Collins” (from Triple Threat) enters a cage match to the death, who would you put your money on and why?

Jesse V. Johnson: Physically that would be a tough one to decide between them all. Sadly I think that Mike Fallon would have probably poisoned everyone else by putting poison on the edge of the cage so as they reached up to get inside they would be poisoned. He’s the smartest of the bunch, and my money is always on the person who is smartest and most devious so I suspect Mike Fallon would win.

In an actual physical fight my money would probably have to be on Cain Burgess because he spent seven years in prison preparing himself so he is pretty much a hard and rusty nail, as he says in the script. 

MAAC: Besides possibly Accident Man 2, can you share with us any other upcoming projects you have in stores for us to look forward to?

Jesse V. Johnson: With Scott Accident Man 2, but also possibly Debt Collector 2 which has been green lit. Without Scott we have White Elephant and One Riot, which are two very exciting much larger-scope action pictures, which are in active development. It’s quite a full plate.

MAAC: Thank you so much for your time again Jesse and we can not wait for martial arts action cinema fans to experience Avengement!

Jesse V. Johnson: Fantastic! Thank you very much David for your continued support and interest. The most important thing is having people who are excited to see these movies.

Avengement hits theaters, on Digital and On Demand May 24, 2019.

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