“You Have to Make Money. It’s a Business”: Jesse V. Johnson on Accident Man, Scott Adkins and the Logistics of Fast DTV Shoots
For over 15 years, Jesse V. Johnson has been a reliable craftsman of action movies for the wildly unreliable DTV market. Born in England, he moved to Hollywood to work as a stunt performer in the 1990s, working on everything from Total Recall (1990) to The Thin Red Line (1999). He has bounced back and forth between stunt work and DTV directing ever since — whatever it took to pay the bills in an unpredictable career. One predictable thing over the last year has been the presence of Scott Adkins as his leading man. Adkins may not have the name recognition of Van Damme but is his inheritor: a remarkably athletic performer who broke through in fight tournament movies but is now trying to expand his range. That next step happens in Accident Man (out on VOD/DVD/Blu-ray on Feb. 6th), a kinetic comic-book adaptation directed by Johnson about a hitman who makes his kills looks like accidents. I spoke with Jesse V. Johnson about working with Adkins (they have two more movies coming out this year), dealing with the budget limitations of DTV productions and the difficulties of making it in in the movie business without a trust fund.
Filmmaker: You’ve recently been working on a lot of films with Scott Adkins, doing Savage Dog (2017), Accident Man (2018), Triple Threat (2018), and The Debt Collector (2018) all in a row. How did that relationship get started?
Johnson: I had written a script called Debt Collector about 15 years ago. Isaac Florentine, a friend of mine, and a producer called Daniel Frisch, wanted to get that script to do with Scott Adkins and, I think, Van Damme at the time. I hadn’t directed anything, so the thought of getting the script out there and made was very exciting. Isaac is a very straightforward, cool guy — they tried to put something together, couldn’t quite get it together, and it never came around. But shortly after, I had the chance to make this very, very small film called Pit Fighter (2005), and Isaac told me that Scott was in town, and if I had anything for him I should throw him in there, because he was in England. So we threw him in for a day, just a cameo — came in for an hour or two to do the part and he was off again. So we got together 15 years ago and kept in touch a little bit after that, talking about projects. I watched [Scott] work his way up with Isaac — they made some terrific pictures together.
Cut forward: I did a picture called The Beautiful Ones (completed in 2015, released in 2017), which was a B&W art film — or at least as art film as I can get, which I thought was going to be something rather special but instead put me in jail in terms of being able to get any kind of work. All of my regular distributors and producers dropped off; they thought I had gone a little bit mental because of the B&W aspect. So I dusted off a script I had called Savage Dog, took that to a couple of companies. A company called Bleiberg said, “If you can get Scott Adkins, we’ll make it right away.” At the time, getting a film done right away was very important, because bills have to be paid. It wasn’t a very big budget and it was enormously over-ambitious. I talked to Scott in England and told him a little bit about it. He liked the idea of doing it and liked the script. So Savage Dog was born of a desperate situation. It worked out OK. It was a very, very difficult film to make; there wasn’t enough time or money, and the crew we had was too few people, all the general things that go with low budget filmmaking. But it worked out OK and the film did good business for Bleiberg, and they wanted to do another one. I wasn’t so sure, because the lower budget takes a huge toll on you, and it’s like spinning a roulette wheel whether the film will be any good or not.
Accident Man came along, a project Scott had been putting together. He didn’t know if he wanted me for it; I think I was about the fifth or sixth director on the list. It came to me and then went away. I was ambivalent about it at the time. It came back again, when Sony realized they’d actually produced a film for me before called The Fifth Commandment (2008), which they enjoyed and made money off of. Suddenly it became really exciting: I was going to go and make a movie in England, which is really really cool after being away for 25 years. It was still part of the low budget arm, Stage 6 Films, but Peter Nelson is a mercurial and very interesting guy — very crazy, sees angles a lot of us fail to see. That’s how you stay an executive at a studio for 16 years, by having a unique outlook. It was a very fun film to make. Craig Baumgarten, one of the other producers on it, is an incredible Hollywood character — just storms down doors and gets actors attached, all the things that are nerve-wracking to do for a novice filmmaker. You watch these seasoned cats doing it just blistering through telephone calls. It’s a bigger cast than any other cast I’ve worked with. Ray Stevenson, David Paymer, Ashley Greene…you know, for an indie movie it’s a real coup to get that kind of cast.
That led directly into Triple Threat, which Arclight Films had bought the idea to. Tiger Chen had been developing it for a year, Chad Stahelski of John Wick had been attached to direct. Tiger had attached Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais. The project had four different scripts, none of which were much to go on. I was brought on to fix it, myself and Joey O’Bryan came up with a script and polished. They needed a bad guy, I pushed them to get Scott. I enjoyed working with him, we come from similar backgrounds and have a similar outlook on life: Fight like crazy on set and argue, but it’s a creative process. I had worked in Thailand before, knew what was achievable there, what was terrific and couldn’t get done elsewhere. I wanted to pit three iconic Asian good guys against three iconic Western bad guys. I showed them Accident Man, I showed them Savage Dog, told them, “Look, this is a cat who is really wanting to grow and do something else.” So they brought him on, and then Michael Jai White and Michael Bisping — role reversal from the usual movie where the Asian is the bad guy going up against the Western good guy.
And then there’s The Debt Collector, which is a beautiful circle really. It was the film that initially introduced me to Scott 15 years ago. We were talking to Ehud Bleiberg; he said “What have you got?” and I said “What about that script we initially met on?” It really was fascinating, because it had been written 15-20 years earlier, and it was all pagers and fax machines, no reference to cell phones anywhere in it. We had to update it for the 21st century. We brought in Stu Small, a writer that understands Scott’s dialogue very well. He actually went to high school with Scott. He worked with us on Accident Man, on Triple Threat and on Debt Collector. We’re working on two other scripts now — he just gets the turn of phrase that works well coming out of Scott’s mouth. It’s probably one of the most complete films I’ve ever made, and I’m just really excited about it. Where Accident Man was very much Scott’s baby that I helped him on, this was very much my baby that he helped me on.
Filmmaker: What was the origin of Accident Man? How did it all come together?
Johnson: Pat Mills, who created Judge Dredd and 2000 AD, gave birth to Accident Man in a pretty political incorrect magazine called Toxic. We all read those magazines as teenagers. I didn’t read Toxic, but I did read 2000 AD; I was obsessed with Strontium Dog [which 2000 AD published]. I liked Judge Dredd but Strontium Dog was a strip I lived for. So I really understood the aesthetic of Accident Man. All the characters in 2000 AD were very rebellious, angry about Marvel Comics and D.C. Everything was, “You don’t want to read that crap, it’s American. This is what you should really be reading. Your humor, your language.” It’s risky to do something with a character who is politically incorrect like Mike Fallon. But the truth is he pretends to be incorrect, if you read closely, and it’s a fine line. He’s not Archer, he is actually a thoughtful cat. But he has to keep up pretenses because of the workplace environment.
Scott probably worked on it for 15 years or so on and off — more concertedly in the last year year-and-a-half with Stu and Erik Kritzer at Link Entertainment — and found a way to get it made. Sony got involved, and then I was the final part of the puzzle. I helped develop the script a little bit, not much. There were two scenes I felt were just going too far, tweaked and brought those back. It was very much Scott’s baby. He was extraordinarily hands on — wanted to see my shot list every day, wanted to discuss how I was going to cover things, wanted to know how we were going to film it. His references were Snatch, Layer Cake, those kinds of films. Very intent upon me watching those. I was nervous, because everyone and his brother copied Snatch when it came out. They even came up with programs for editing systems based on the Snatch graphics and editorial style. It was so written into the lexicon that even Guy Ritchie can’t make a Snatch anymore, because it’s been copied so many times it would look unoriginal. Dangerous material to try and mimic in any way. Scott was very sensitive to it; he would say, “We’re not copying it, it’s a tip of the hat to that style. Snatch has been out for decades; it’s become a classic, something you can look at in a way that’s not plagiarism but honorable.” For example, the scene where we meet all of the characters in the pub at the beginning and the camera pushes in fast on them: I was really nervous doing that, you really don’t want to go after a director’s storytelling style in that way. But I tried to put my spin on it as much as possible, and we were really very careful with this one and discussed a lot about how it should be shot.
A short schedule and not a vast amount of money, but when you go in with a cohesive plan that everyone is a part of, it does make it easier. Those were all very much Scott’s ideas. Where you see me are the flashback scenes between Ray and the young Mike Fallon. Which I felt, along with Ray Stevenson, have almost a New Wave feel about them — though I should stop digging at myself with talking about these references in relation to an action movie. Ray is a force of nature. There is literally no rehearsal. You discuss it a little bit; he’s in character when he arrives on set in costume. You set up the cameras, you better be ready. You set him up with the second team, the stand-in for Ray who’s the same height, so they can light using him. Ray walks in, he does his piece, and it’s fucking lightning in a bottle. But you better have everything correct and right technically, because if you ask him to do another one you better have a good reason. I absolutely loved that way of working, it keeps you on your toes and you are forced to really think. Because I shot my first films on film, my biggest problem with going to digital was this feeling of, “OK, if it’s wrong we’ll just do another. We’ll keep the camera rolling.” What happens is you don’t treat that magical moment with the right kind of respect. When you’re paying for the film, the telecine, and the cost of the cameras in the first place, you’re really, really careful with what you expose. Working with Ray was like, “You better be fucking on your toes.” I had three days where I shot all of those flashbacks with him, and it was just a blast.
We worked with a particular camera style much closer to my style, which is where you basically weight down the camera as heavily as possible. It’s on a dolly, which weighs 300 or 400 pounds, and the camera moves elegantly. You design your shots, and the actors, to work around the camera, as opposed to the camera following the actors in a hurried manner, the handheld rat-a-tat-tat which we’ve become very accustomed to. It’s become the fashion of almost a decade. My particular aesthetic is definitely more towards what we do in Accident Man and you’ll see it turn up again in Triple Threat and The Debt Collector as well. I was always nervous, because it looked a little old fashioned, that particular style, but then you see something like Sicario or No Country for Old Men and realize that style is actually timeless. But it takes planning, it takes a good team and experience, and a good idea of what the day is going to have to deliver. You can’t go in unprepared if you are shooting that way. David Lynch used to put sandbags on his dolly to weight it down. Now, I don’t think we’ll go that far, but it does pertain to this particular philosophy behind moving the camera.
Filmmaker: Have you seen the new Twin Peaks?
Johnson: No, I haven’t. I’m kind of weird, I try to avoid anything too new, because it imprints on your cerebellum and turns up in your work if you’re not careful, especially if it’s something particularly fantastic that everyone’s talking about. It’s a particularly nerve-wracking thing to do. I’m obsessed with Jean-Pierre Melville and Ford and Hawks and obscure Japanese pictures. There are so many great movies out there, I just have be really careful. I’ve seen it with other directors. When The Matrix came out, so many other movies looked just like it, and the same with Pulp Fiction and with Snatch. It’s a really risky thing to do. I know it makes me sound like a Luddite. My manager hates it when I say that; she says, “Oh, you have to be up on everything that’s going on!” But I think there’s something to be said for reading a vast amount of fiction and just watching the films that have come before. Films that aren’t in the same genre, like the films of Wong Kar-Wai, that force you to think about the aesthetic and the movement, and then you apply that to action film.
Filmmaker: Since we’re talking about style, how did you approach the fight sequences in Accident Man and working with choreographer Tim Man?
Johnson: The fight sequences in Accident Man are not me, very simply because we didn’t have enough time or money. We had a limited budget. They are very specific about where they want to put the camera to catch the hit, they are very specific about how the hit has to look and what the technique is. That kind of filmmaking simply does not interest me. It’s like shooting a movie from a previs. It’s boring, there’s no room for those wonderful accidents that make a movie special. So I gave the 2nd unit, meaning the fight scenes, to Tim. I would throw the first punch, and then Tim would come in to shoot the fight scene all the way through the last hit, which would be me. Then I would pack up so that he would then move into that location for a day or two days, depending on which fight it was, and I could go off and shoot scenes that Scott wasn’t in. The flashbacks, for example, the introduction of the characters.
The film worked very well in that aspect. If there were dramatic moments, dialogue or moments of thoughtfulness that needed directing, they’d call me on the radio. I’d go over, set the shot up, talk with the actor. And Tim is very respectful, he doesn’t overstep his boundaries. Literally just the fight scenes were his work. We have a mutually respectful relationship. Would they have been the way I would have directed them? No, not really at all. I like the big wide angles; with me there would have been a lot more flowing, push-in for the tights, a slightly different way. But at the end of the day you’re making a film in 20 or so days and there’s only one of me to go around, so what we got I’m very satisfied with. They really worked very hard. I could hear them on the set next door, smacking the ground, hitting the walls, screaming, yelling. I’d go and watch, make sure things were going OK time-wise — I had a good assistant director who kept them on schedule — and then I’d wander back and continue doing my stuff. We basically did the same thing on Triple Threat as well. I would tell him what I wanted story-wise, how I wanted it to end. I’d watch the previz and the rehearsals that he had put together, and then we’d go from there. On Triple Threat it was a little different, because we had so many different martial arts at work; we wanted to tip our hat to those characters’ particular martial arts styles. Iko would have his Silat, Tiger would have his traditional kung fu, and Jaa would have his very brutal style of Muay Thai that he enjoyed. The guys would fight and counter with their particular styles. On that one it was complex; we had to make sure the actors were happy, they were always giving their 10 cents. On Accident Man Tim and Scott had a little bit more of a free reign, they were the bosses. I think they did great in the amount of time we had.
Filmmaker: How long were the shooting schedules on Savage Dog as compared to Accident Man and Triple Threat?
Johnson: Savage Dog was just under three weeks, which is very nerve-wracking. Accident Man was just under four weeks filming in England, Triple Threat was about six weeks. Triple Threat is a slightly different fish, because you’re shooting in Thailand with a foreign crew; it’s just myself and the DP that spoke English, everyone else was Thai, and you’ve got almost 100 people on the crew. Things move quickly, but there has to be a very cohesive plan that has be translated, sometimes in two different languages. Sometimes we had four different languages being spoken on set with the cast, the interpreters and the stuntmen, so things don’t go quite as efficiently as on an L.A. indie movie. Having said that, the Thai crew is very efficient if they know what they have to do, all about prepping for the next one and the next one. It was six weeks but, in actual film time, it’s more like four. But you have such great resources there: have to feed 700 extras, built a Bridge on the River Kwai-kind of village we ended up blowing up, and elephants. Logistically, it introduced challenges I hadn’t faced before.
In Debt Collector we went back to considerably less than a month [laughs]. You’re running around L.A.; worst of it was an 18-hour day, but there were 14-15 hour days, wide-eyed, running on coffee and Twizzlers by the end of it. You approach all of them the same way: with a very cohesive plan, as logistically as possible, with a view to allowing actors as much freedom as possible. It’s a strange thing. I don’t like the actors to be too constrained and unless they’re Ray Stevenson, who loves it, I hate to try make them get it in one or two takes. The brilliance, the really good stuff, comes three to four takes in. Once the fear leaves and they inhabit that moment, it’s like alchemy. It’s tough making them quickly, so you have to plan your days very carefully. Crack the whip and they’re literally just saying the lines; you’re recording it and moving on. It’s called “shooting a schedule” and that’s a trap you can fall into very easily if you’re a lower budget-director.
Filmmaker: Scott Adkins plays a completely different character here, more of a motormouth than his usual stoic killers, though he seems more comfortable using his real accent. How do you think he handled this challenge?
Johnson: Everything that Scott and I had done before, we always planned for him to be the Clint Eastwood silent gunman. Stoic, quiet. I’ve done a few of these martial arts pictures and you don’t want to give long soliloquies to action actors. It’s not that they’re not good actors, it’s just — a Shakespearean actor trained in dialogue studies, trains and loves that, and that’s his thing. These guys aren’t going to do a 25-technique martial arts routine, which would absolutely baffle them. They have their strengths in different areas. So you find yourself highlighting scripts, giving dialogue to other actors, giving the bulk of the work to the other cast and let your hero emote more through body language — nods and glances and interesting looks. The camera can help out an awful lot with a performance.
When I first read Accident Man I called Scott and said, “There’s an awful lot of dialogue. Are you sure this is the way you wanna go, mate? It’s more than all of your other movies combined, I think.” He got quite angry at me, and he said, “No, I can do it. This is what we talked about, this is what we planned, this is the character.” In the comic book, he’s very verbose, famously breaking the fourth wall and talking about his technique and what’s going on in politics and whatever else. That’s what makes the comic books amusing. I understood, but I was nervous about it right up until we saw the first footage, and the guy is just perfect for it. Scott loves to talk in reality; he’s got a lot of opinions and a good sense of humor, and it just seemed to fit. I don’t think he has a dishonest moment in the movie. It completely changed my view on Scott, and in Triple Threat you’ll see he has a few moments where he pontificates, a bit more than expected. In Debt Collector, as far as I’m concerned, he’s a regular Hollywood actor whose strength lies in dialogue as much as physical. I was very impressed. I hope it gets Scott a lot of notice. I’d seen him in other pictures and for some reason there was an awkwardness, and I’m not sure if on bigger pictures with big name actors involved, the director’s energies are spread very thin. I’ve done many films, and there are certain actors who just suck all your energy, and you wonder if the supporting cast were left not really knowing what they’re doing. Perhaps that explains it. In this one he can really inhabit the character; it was his, he understood it, and he was the boss.
Filmmaker: You mentioned earlier that you and Scott come from similar backgrounds. Could you elaborate on that?
Johnson: I don’t want to lump Scott in to my dodgy old background — you know, he has a loving family, and they’re all around and very supportive of him. But it’s blue collar. Scott’s father is a butcher. We grew up watching the wealthier kids get to play at making movies in the UK. It was absolutely galling, because you’re up against kids with trust funds. You’re trying to pay your bills doing it, and they’re off taking a holiday in the Seychelles and after that getting back into a movie again. It was very frustrating. They didn’t have a novice industry, so people like us that wanted to make movies had to leave: Go to Hong Kong, work as a stuntman, or the U.S., in my case, or you travel around. In Scott’s case, he want to Romania or Bulgaria where they shot Special Forces (2003). You have to travel out, leave your family and the security, everything you loved, for your career, for your art.
It’s about the work, and most of us have been faulted for work that perhaps on paper was not as fantastic as it might have been. I knew I was going have a hard time making the kind of movies I wanted my name attached to. But at the end of the day, you have to work. You have to make money. It’s a business. And people forget that. They tell you, “Why don’t you take a year off and cool your heels a bit and then come back with something fantastic?” And you’re like, “Well [laughs], that’s about $120,000 worth of bills. And if I did I’d go to jail.” People don’t grasp that, and Scott and I have talked about it at length. It is what it is. You just have to bully your way into big movies, put your nose down and try and make these things good. Accident Man, I think, is a testament to Scott’s sheer willpower of reinventing himself over and over again. He comes back saying, “You think you know me? Well, here I am: I’m playing an East End cockney hitman from a comic book in the 80s.” I think it’s fucking brilliant. It’s a very difficult thing to pull off. They write you off so quickly. There’s no sentiment, no sympathy, no veneration of any past victories. You’re literally as good as the last movie — the flop, didn’t do well, went straight to DVD. I’m a huge admirer of his, and we’ve got another project. In fact I’m on the road now to go meet with the executive producer of one we want to do later in the year.