Jesse Johnson has "made his bones" in film working as a stuntman and coordinator for some of the biggest names in the industry including Spielberg, Zemeckis, Verhoeven, and Burton. Now this movie veteran has turned his talents to writing and directing. Those of you who’ve seen the award-winning film The Last Sentinal (on the Sci-Fi Channel and DVD) are already familiar with his work. Here Jesse discusses his newest film The Butcherand the challenges of being a filmmaker.
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Nic– Jesse your newest film, The Butcher, is the sixth film you’ve directed and the fifth that you’ve also written. Which do you find more challenging: writing a screenplay, or bringing that screenplay to life as the director?
Jesse– They are such different challenges and so dependent on different outside influences, writing is lot less physically exhausting than directing, you get to sit down more. Less chance of being beaten up by an off balance lead actor when you’re writing, although if you’re writing in collaboration it can sometimes get quite heated. I have a big family now, so it can be tough to find the space and quiet needed to immerse yourself in the act of writing. When I arrive on set, I enter the world of that movie and strangely enough I can focus more intensely there, amidst the chaos than almost anywhere else. You just forget all the common burdens life puts on you as an adult and you become the film (this sounds "new agey" and silly, but bare with me) you’re making, it’s part of the allure. It’s also why it’s important to be passionate about your material. Both writing and directing is about me asking as many questions as possible of the material, why, what for, what’s believable, what’s horseshit? The stressful part for me, is maintaining the energy needed to continually do this. Never settle, boy is it tough, on the budgets I’m working with, and the tight schedules, I think my films are getting better, not just in quality but performance and artistic value, too, but the disturbing thing is, I feel less qualified each outing, not more confident. It really is a case of the more you know, the more you have to fear, it’s a challenge for me to sometimes take that leap, to erase all the fear and try to become that fearless, clueless 19 year old again.
Nic– Can you tell us a bit about your new film, The Butcher?
Jesse– The Butcher is a very personal and important film for me, I grew up with French gangster movies and film noir, and just always loved stories about aging gangsters, who started out wild men, but time, misfortune and bad choices had left in the gutter without anything but their wits to show for it. I also knew a lot of these kind of guys in England, and have dealt with them all over the world and I believe there is a universal trait they all share that fascinates me. It’s a devil may care, cowboy attitude that goes against everything that’s PC or responsible in this century anyway, and as much as we all know it’s wrong, it’s fun to watch.
Merle (Eric Roberts) is a gangster on the wrong end of just such a misspent career, his boss wants him to move on, his monies run out and he’s got nothing to show for it, until 24 hours of good fortune changes all that. Then with the money he’d always dreamed about, Merle does something he’s never done before, he does the right thing.
It’s a lot of fun, and very differently paced to anything I’ve done before, slower, more deliberate, of course it has a very bloody final showdown, but you go with it, and the audience was cheering the blood letting, at the three festivals where we’ve played so far, in Fort Lauderdale it was nearly two thousand people, it was a lot of fun.
Nic– It sounds like The Butcher has been received very well so far and from watching the preview I can say I’m eager to see it. When can we expect to see The Butcher in general distribution?
Jesse– The Butcheris doing the rounds now, as with any truly independent movie, it is a daunting task to choose your distributor (they’re commonly not the most honest of customers, and you stand to lose everything in a bad decision, if you’re not careful), and the producers of The Butcherare in the thick of that right now. The outcome of that decision process will determine when and where the little film is exhibited, who sees it, and on what scale it is released.
Nic– What are some of the other projects you are working on now?
Jesse– I am currently in preproduction on Charlie Valentine– a very performance based story about an aging gangster who is forced to reunite with his thirty year old son, and the disappointments and expectations that the process of healing brings. It’s more "mature" than anything I’ve attempted before and really exciting and terrifying at the same time. I think it will be my best film, yet.
I’m also simultaneously prepping a series of action films that I will produce, the first, that I will direct, is an updating of the true Japanese tale of the 47 Ronin, it’s really exciting stuff!
I have a labor of love script that is doing the rounds that is set in 1960’s Laos, and is a rough re-mix on the Seven Samurai type story, but with US and ex-French Special Forces as the motley band of heroes. I would shoot it with the same team that made Fifth Commandment with me in Bangkok, Thailand, but it’s bigger and more ambitious than anything I’ve attempted to date, so it’s taking time to set up.
When you’re in production, unfortunately all your other work tends to go into bio-freeze, as you really must focus on the very imminent chaos that’s about to descend on you, and with Charlie Valentinewe have such a short schedule and small budget, all the good stuff is going to happen because of planning and rehearsing, it’s fun but it’s hard work. I choose the props and buy most of them, if they’re special or expensive, the wardrobe and locations all require very personal input, because our crew won’t be on payroll until two weeks before shooting, which simply isn’t enough time to do it right. My poor wife always asks, is this how it’s supposed to be done, aren’t there people to do this for you, you have to smile and nod, and politely keep going, because there aren’t.
With The Butcher, Fifth Commandment Charlie Valentine, I have worked at almost starvation rates, so that I can get some quality work behind me, spending enormous amounts of time and energy crafting and these shoots, turning down stunt work and coordinating gigs is heart breaking, considering the money involved, but I truly think that there must be sacrifice made to achieve anything worthwhile, in movies or in life.
I’m hoping something in these three films resonates with an audience and somebody notices. I’ll be a very unhappy camper if they just come and go.
But, I will know that I put my heart and soul into the work and it wasn’t for lack of effort.
Nic– In addition to your work as a writer and director, you’ve been involved in even more films working with the second unit and stunts. How do you think your experience working as a stuntman/coordinator has shaped your work when you are behind the camera?
Jesse–I’ve had the great fortune to watch some of the all time masters of their trade work out problems and negotiate issues, Spielberg, Zemeckis, Verhoeven, Burton, just a really, really good apprenticeship, I’ve been very lucky in that respect. I have had crew members who are working their way up on my pictures, complaining and saying well, those guys had so much more time and money, the truth is that the best of the upper echelon directors are super prepared, efficient and on their toes, ready to change gear and adapt. Spielberg shot a huge steadicam sequence in New Jersey on War of the Worlds, with 400 extras and Tom Cruise, rehearsed it once, shot it and moved on. This takes balls, I don’t care who you are, you have to be on your game to know you have it, to be that efficient and sure of yourself is mind boggling (I wouldn’t want to be the Steadicam operator, of course).
Nic– You’ve mentioned some of the filmmakers you’ve worked with in the past. Who would you say has been your biggest influence?
Jesse– That I’ve worked with, Paul Verhoeven, a truly underrated and significant film maker. A director who it is fashionable to dislike or vilify, people did the same thing with Otto Preminger, now he’s respected as a master. I really enjoyed watching Spielberg direct War of the Worlds, was akin to watching an athlete at the top of his game; their instincts and knowledge are so thoroughly primed that their form looks effortless. I watched a lot of TV directors on shows I worked on as a stunt man and actor, without commenting on the final result of their efforts, I was always enthralled with how efficient and quickly they worked, with supreme confidence they can bash out a hour show in eight days, this is always a good thing to have in the back of your head.
You arrive on set with a plan to make an epic, but if your day goes to hell in a hand basket you know there’s always a way to make the day, you don’t want to compromise and you try to avoid it, but it’s good to know.
If I had just watched the way mega-budget films were made, I might have missed that part of the equation.
Sometimes you have 45 minutes to finish a scene, you lose the actor to another movie the next day, the location is being pulled down when you leave, the money is gone and you’re looking at a shot list that will take four hours to complete, what do you do?
Watching Spielberg, Zemeckis or Verhoeven work won’t help you there, although they’ve all faced similar challenges; I think my grounding in TV has had a significant effect on my getting films shot in short schedules, Pit Fighter -days, The Last Sentinel Alien Agent – days each, and The Butcher17 days.
My concern is always that I am doing work that can compete with films made on much larger budgets with longer schedules, it’s very difficult to fake that, the languid decision making process, the multiple takes, the complex camera moves, I just hope and dream that I get the chance to compete at that level soon. In the meantime I’ll take on all comers with a tiny budget, it really is like a street fight, no one knows your budget, or cares, when they watch your movie. It’s all down to how your picture entertains. My litmus test is: would I spend $20 to go see it?
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Trailers are available on Jesse’s Film Gravity page:
Jesse’s IMDB page: