David G. Hughes talks to Jesse V. Johnson about his movie Savage Dog, the ups and downs of his career, and how to keep genre fare fresh.
At this point, director Jesse V. Johnson somewhat of an industry veteran, even if you didn’t know it. Having worked as a stunt co-ordinator on some of Hollywood’s most successful films throughout his career, including Total Recall (1990), War of the Worlds (2005), Avatar (2009), and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Jesse went from being a small cog in a big machine to a big cog in a small machine, choosing to take the helm and ride the bull in the lower-budget action arena.
With a few titles under his belt and a career failing to fully take flight, Jesse reluctantly returned to the field of stunt work, somewhat demoralised. Luckily, he ended up collaborating directly with Kenneth Branagh on Thor (2011), Paul Thomas Anderson on The Master (2012) and Steven Spielberg on Lincoln (2012). Galvanised by what he saw on the sets of these esteemed filmmakers, Jesse has returned to the director’s chair more determined, inspired, and with an accomplished voice.
We spoke to the loquacious and enthusiastic Jesse over the phone about this career trajectory and his new action film Savage Dog, starring martial-arts virtuoso Scott Adkins.
electric ghost: How are you today, Jesse?
Jesse V. Johnson: Hi David, I’m not bad. Not bad. A little bid tired. It’s 3am in the morning here.
Oh wow, we best get right to it then. They let me see Savage Dog and, as an action cinema aficionado and keen Scott Adkins acolyte, I really enjoyed it.
But before we talk about your latest film, I was hoping we can talk contextually about your time in the industry.
Yes, absolutely. Anything you’d like to talk about.
You’ve been working in the stunt business since the 1990s, your first project being Total Recall. It dawned on me that you would have, at most, been only nineteen years old during that making of that film.
I was seventeen. My uncle was stunt co-ordinator Vic Armstrong and I had actually worked for him before. Unofficially, I had been his bag carrier and assistant on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade  [Armstrong was Harrison Ford’s stunt double], but only the Elstree portion of the film. I was very lucky with the family connections and got to work on Total Recall in Mexico City for three weeks.
“At the time, I was desperate, it was awful. It was the worst thing in the world to have to go back to stunts.”
So working with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a stratospheric star, and director Paul Verhoeven, seems like a crazy start to the industry.
It was an awesome, awesome start. Unfortunately, I was a little too young to realise the break I was getting. But I was lucky enough to work again with Paul Verhoeven on Starship Troopers  for fourteen months. I’m a huge, huge Verhoeven fan. I love his outlook on life, the way he puts together action in a far more… educated way than you’d expect. He’s a trained psychologist and knows the human mind and what it is that works. I did remember some conversations sitting down and listening to him, going on. It was all a very surreal experience for a young man.
It’s not only Verhoeven either. You’ve gone on to work on numerous big-scale and illustrious projects in the capacity of stunt co-ordinator, operating on sets directed by Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Malick. It seems like a great school to watch and learn. Has collaborating with these directors inspired you when you approach your own directorial projects?
More than you can imagine. There was a period where I’d already started directing at that point, I’d gone off and done some B movies, some lower-budget sci-fi. Any other period of history and you would have been able to hide them—ban it! Unfortunately, in this particular period of the 21st century, every single film you’ve directed follows you around—digital!—for the rest of your life. But they were put together very quickly, between twelve and fifteen days. They were not good movies. They were not good films. I look back on them now and I want to fucking stab my eyes out.
Suddenly, my career came to a standstill, probably because the films were not good. I threw my hat back into the ring of stunt-work again. In that period in about a year and a half with a stagnating career as a director, I worked on Lincoln, then The Master with P.T. Anderson, working very closely, and then it was Thor with Kenneth Branagh, going to New Mexico. At the time, I was desperate, it was awful. It was the worst thing in the world to have to go back to stunts. But looking back, I realised that was the point at which my director changed. You come out of that experience and you realise there’s more to directing a film than a schedule. Even if you’re making an action film, or a genre movie. They really had a lot of impact on how I work, how I worked with actors, the script, what you’re looking for. It was just the most wonderful experience. I think it changed me as a director very powerfully. So yes, to see how these masters worked.
For sure. Moving on, because I definitely want to spend some time talking about your own films!
Yes, that was a very long answer!
“The biggest challenge is coming up with a reason why people put down their guns, knives, or swords to have a fist fight.”
Savage Dog is set in Indochina in 1959, a transition period in the regions history from French colonialism to American involvement. What was the reason setting your film in this place and period, considering a lot of action films don’t frequently set their films in the past like this?
Well, when you’re making a martial arts movie, which in and of itself sounds like a cliche, the biggest challenge is coming up with a reason why people put down their guns, knives, and swords to have a fistfight. It’s a really hokey thing, but the martial arts movie has to have it, abide by that very basic norm. So, it’s trying to come up with something even remotely original. The genre has been absolutely trashed to pieces—every imaginable concoction. You try to do something that people haven’t seen before. The period of time is one that is very interesting. I’m a student of history, I love all that stuff anyway. It seemed like a really interesting time, with a lot of bad guys that you can get hold off.
I can tell that you tried to be as original as possible, not only with the setting, but also with your protagonist, whose a former IRA soldier. In particular, his savagery, true to the title, is one of the most startling elements of the film. You kind of push the moral acceptability of the heroes actions when it comes to his revenge.
It’s very gruesome retribution! I want to know, firstly, why did you approach the character in this darker way? And secondly, whose idea was it to have Scott Adkins rip out a man’s internal organs and eat it in front of the victim’s face?
The worst thing with a revenge movie is feeling that your character hasn’t really gotten his revenge. For myself and my stunt co-ordinator, we sat and we talked about revenge and violence in films, but they never really are very savage, or as violent as we expect them to be. And if someone has done this sort of stuff to you, it felt fun to show a film that actually showed the hero get his own back and really go mental.
Now, in the Japanese samurai genre, you do see this happen—it does get violent. It felt like an interesting way to make a mark in this genre and do something different. Again, the revenge picture has been done to death—it’s been done and done and done! What can you do within that genre that is a little fresh, a little different, so we thought we’d go all the way.
The liver-eating thing was based on a Robert Redford film called Jeremiah Johnson , which was based on a book called Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson. When each of the Native Americans are killed he actually ate their liver. This was the worst thing you could do to a Native American, as they believed the liver was vital for going on to the afterlife. But I’m afraid it’s not an original idea, but one we felt should’ve been used in the movie.
I’ve got lots more questions, but I’ve run out of time.
It’s been really great talking to you, man! Alright, boss.
You can read our review of Jesse V. Johnson’s Savage Dog here.