I’m incredibly proud to share with all of you a talk I had with film director Jesse V Johnson, who has scored action hit after hit with Scott Adkins (Savage Dog, The Debt Collector, Triple Threat), and I was blessed enough to get a chance to pick Jesse’s brain a bit about Avengement, Scott Adkins, action filmmaking, and Louis Mandylor! You can read my review of Avengement and see why you need to watch this movie! I kept the interview as spoiler-free as possible, but you may want to see the film (you really should) and then check back here to read the interview! Enjoy!
MM: With Avengement you guys did such a great job you can tell the love of martial arts cinema is there. I was wondering who are other performers or directors you look to as a inspiration as a director and a writer?
JVJ: Not really much in the way of performance; I’m not necessarily drawn to one actor or another but I like actors like Steve McQueen because his films are so iconic, and he also did some bad movies but when he’d work with the great directors the films were magnificent. Honestly my thing is directors. I watch their work avidly and analyze it and watch everything possible. I have every book written by/about Sam Peckinpah. He’s one of my gods. Even self-published books and homemade footage of his daughter filming the location where they shot The Wild Bunch. I‘m quite obsessive when it comes to certain directors. They tend to be of a slightly gone era because what I find is I’m a little bit of a sponge, and I’m having to be careful about watching too much contemporary stuff because everybody else is watching these films and your films tend to look very similar. A lot of the films that followed David Fincher’s best movies and things like The Matrix, Gladiator, pictures like that, and others like Pulp Fiction as well, you’ll see there’s a ‘Splash on Crater effect’ for 5 to 7 years in other directors work in cinema and for me that’s something I try to avoid so I tend to obsess on films from the 40s, 50s 60’s, 80’s so that when they turn up in my work it’s more difficult to see where they come from. There are some fantastic directors like PT Anderson whom I’ve worked with, and people like Kenneth Branagh, an extraordinary director who pulls off the most amazing things but it’s all so subtly done people tend not to put him in the same group as the Spielbergs and PT Andersons but he’s definitely worthy of that. I tend to obsess over Howard Hawks, John Huston, John Ford, David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, Elia Kazan, Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi. Those guys are the icons and when I’m in trouble or in doubt I put one of them on to remind myself there’s another level of film-making that is achievable, which is a grace you can achieve if you work hard enough at it and are careful enough with your preparation, careful enough with your writing, casting, editing, you can come up with something that’s on a par with… heaven, y’know? *laughs*
MM: I recently saw The Debt Collector–another great movie– and I got a bone to pick with you: you killed off Louis Mandylor! I wanted to smack you upside the head for that!
JVJ: Ah, but did I? We have a sequel!
MM: I love the fact that you had him in Avengement as a cop! I was like ‘okay Louis is there!’ I’ve loved Louis’ work ever since I saw him in Martial Law with Sammo Hung back in the early 90s!
JVJ: He’s fucking brilliant, man! He’s absolutely brilliant! I’m so glad we got him in Avengement. I thought his cop was brilliant. He was really a tough nut with tattoos and stuff. English people don’t question an accent that’s Australian. They just kind of let it go which I think is brilliant, ‘cause I’m not sure how many Australian detectives there are in England but it worked! I think he’s very, very good. When you’re directing a low budget film that has a relatively quick schedule you need trump cards; you need get out of jail cards that will allow you to move on as expeditiously as possible. One of the big problems in filming these scenes of exposition is you have a certain amount of information that has to be relayed to the audience in a way that’s as artful and interesting as possible. Actors like Louis Mandylor and Nick Moran are experts at that and you don’t realize you’re being given exposition because it’s so damn interesting watching them act. There is this incredible kind of creativity…and as far as you’re concerned you’re watching an interesting piece of cinema but actually you’re watching a very, very good bit of acting and they carry the entire burden of the movie at that point on their shoulders and they can do it well. Louis and Nick Moran are brilliant and they are where you turn to when you need that kind of skillfulness. I’m looking forward to working with them again!
MM: This is your 6th collaboration with Scott Adkins, right? What’s it like working with Scott?
JVJ: Scott is a genius! He knows his–to use an old cliche from the theater–he knows his toolbox very, very well. He knows what he can do, he knows what he cannot do, and he knows when he’s pushing himself, and he knows when he’s pushing himself in a direction that is not going to work. He’s done so many of these films and he’s worked with great directors and worked with some terrible directors so he’s created a self defense system where he tries not to allow himself to get into trouble but with me he allows himself to take risks because I’ll push him in a direction but I’ll be watching out for him so what we’ve done by working together so many times is create a situation where we trust each other to tell each other when we’re in trouble and we’re not doing the right thing he will come to me and tell me that we were spending too much time with this and this isn’t working and I’m will also go back to him and say the same sort of thing to him when it comes to the character and to have that trust is so fantastic and I enjoy working with him!
Making action films with Scott –he moves like the best stuntman you could ever hire if there’s any stuntmen who can move as well as he can! There’s maybe two or three that I know of but he’s my leading man, but he’s also able to act, he’s able to take direction, and you can finance a film with him, so it’s a pleasure working with him. I don’t have to wrap my head around it. I can see why directors like Anthony Mann worked with Gary Cooper over and over and why Ford worked with John Wayne over and over. They knew what they were getting and they knew they didn’t need to do a certain amount of work in that area and could focus on storytelling, and they knew he was going to make himself look far better than they could possibly make a interloper look like John Wayne…
...It’s a great experience working with him (Adkins). You’re able to do work you wouldn’t normally be able to do. I can create an action scene with Scott, the fight choreographer and the stunt coordinator and we can shoot it in three setups only using one take maybe two for setup and we’ll be gone onto another scene in 45 minutes. With an actor who is not familiar A) with martial arts but B) with just the incredible physical coordination that Scott has you’ll not be there a day and that’s not exaggerating or hyperbole we can get done in an 1/8 of the time which is extraordinary and I’m reminded every time I go to work with other actors and it’s fine–that’s what I do–but it’s not disappointing because Scott is so much on a higher level physically than most human beings, but it’s absurd watching the guy work; the coordination and memory and all that kind of stuff on a normal film you have a stunt double so you’d have to shoot them from behind unless you had a really good double and then you could maybe creep around and shoot it ¾ but you don’t want to see too much of the face. And then obviously your shooting the face in a close-up because the guy probably is not that proficient –or girl– so your having to adjust the photography…Scott understands the camera so he’ll move with the camera and make your life a lot easier. He understands blocking the camera as well, making the punches sell, as opposed to missing, and it really is exciting if you can work together you really get the spark and the engine firing on all cylinders it’s quite an adventure working with him!
If you set up the story correctly you’ll get a good character out of it! He’s bloody good, and I think Avengement is his best work so far. I really do. His acting really works. I think Cain is multidimensional. He’s definitely got a moral code that is the opposite to what you think his time in prison would have brought to the surface; he becomes more moral as the story continues although at first you may think he becomes amoral which is what makes half of the story interesting. And I think Scott pulled it off really well. What did you think?
MM: I thought I think his (Cain’s) journey made him feel more human. I think that pact he made with the devil that was his brother, and then going to prison, and then climbing his way back out, I think it actually–in a way–made him a better person despite the pain and suffering he went through, but he had to go through it to get to where he is.
JVJ: It’s an interesting story to follow, isn’t it?
MM: Yes it is! Will we see Cain Burgess again?
JVJ: I don’t know. We all really want to like him but he was exhausting. This film kicked all of our butts! *laughs* It kicked Scott’s behind! It’s an enormously physical world, but not just physical, it was demanding emotionally and I know we both looked at each other and went ‘whew! we’re glad this one’s out!’ It was a tough shoot it would have to be a bit more time but we’ll see how this one dives on Netflix and home video and see if it makes a ripple. You never know with these films. We were looking at each other and were like ‘ the fans are going to hate this one. There’s too much talking and too much acting but we gotta do it!’. When you see the film you have high hopes but you never really know. You’re a slave to the script just like your storytelling conscience and so the film almost manifests itself and you can’t really force it in any direction so I hope it resonates and people enjoy it. If they do we may see more of him.
MM: It’s certainly Scott’s best work! Thank you so much and I hope to talk to you again some time!
J: Anytime! All the best!