Jesse V. Johnson became a filmmaker I paid attention to because of his work with Scott Adkins. I had seen his Steve Austin/Dolph Lundgren movie The Package, but with his run of Savage Dog, Accident Man and The Debt Collector, Johnson became one of the best filmmakers at creating compelling vehicles for one of my favorite action heroes.
Johnson has two more this year. Triple Threat teamed up Iko Uwais, Tony Jaa and Tiger Chen with Adkins and Michael Jai White as villains. Now Avengement takes Adkins to darker places than ever as a guy who goes to prison on a small time crime, and turns into a monster to survive. When he’s out, he’s coming for avengement.
Johnson spoke with me by phone about Avengement and plans for some sequels to some of his best Scott Adkins movies. Avengement is out Friday, May 24.
WLE: Did you get to invent a new word with Avengement?
JVJ: I think it is actually a word. I’m sure it was a word. Listen, I get an awful lot of freedom to make movies from Ehud Bleiberg. He is one of my favorite executive producers. He basically says, “This is how much money you have. Don’t go over budget. Make sure you give me a lot of action. This is the title of the movie that you have.” Those are my mandates. As far as I can determine, it’s something to do with people searching for a vengeance and avengement will pop up too, which is a bit frustrating because obviously every filmmaker would like to think that his film stood upon its own merits, but we shall see. I was assured it was a real word. In terms of getting someone who trusts you and gives you artistic freedom, it’s a small price to pay and I’m okay with it. And interviewer called me yesterday and said, “I’d like to let you know that I did actually look it up and it is a real word.” I’m taking his word for it. It’s underlined whenever I write it as a spelling error.
WLE: Was it cool to put your director credit on a freeze frame?
JVJ: Yes yes, it’s rather fun, isn’t it? They were all on freeze frames at one point. I think it didn’t work with the music and we ended up taking it all off. An editor left mine on the freeze frame. I said, “Dude, you’ve taken off all the others so you’ve got to take it off mine.” He said, “No, no, I like it on yours.” It wasn’t my ego saying that but I’m thrilled that you noticed that.
WLE: The films you’ve done with Scott are the ones where he gets the most dialogue and character work. Has it been gratifying to show the world what a good actor he is in addition to kicking ass?
JVJ: It’s fantastic. Gratifying is absolutely the word to use. It really is. Oftentimes I read through these scripts and I think, “You gave yourself a huge speech here.” Common default for an action film is you give your leading man less dialogue than the supporting cast. That’s the rule of thumb. I’ve worked with Dolph Lundgren, Stone Cold Steve Austin and all these action stars I’ve worked with over the years as a stunt coordinator. Usually you give them less. Scott and Stu come back with their pass of the dialogue and they give him these speeches. It started with and I’d say, “Are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure?” By the time we got to the set it just worked. It worked with his character, with the way he delivers it and it felt organic and natural. From that point on, I’ve trusted him more with it. Every once in a while he’ll cut his dialogue back but it is rather unique that we have quite a chatty leading man. Certainly in American movies, action movies, that’s something that is not usually done. It’s always good to carve your own place in the pantheon of movie characters. I think he’s doing that
WLE: He’s such a good looking guy, what was the idea to mess up Scott’s face throughout the movie?
JVJ: Well, we talked about this in quite some depth. When he first read the script, I gave it to him when he was doing Accident Man because I realized he can actually handle this kind of a British gangster. He said, “I’m not playing with makeup on” because originally he was hideously deformed. He only had one eye, teeth missing as well as metallic. It was a real unseemly kind of makeup job. We talked it out and we were offered a film slot with a budget, whatever script we wanted as long as it was me directing with Scott starring and we did it for a set figure. Scott didn’t want to leave the U.K. because his wife was just about ready to burst with his second child, his first son. So he wanted to stay close to home and he said England. I said, “What about the one you read?” He reread it and at that point in his career, I guess it seemed like the right thing to do. So Stu Small was brought on board and really adapted it for Scott. We went through a few makeup tests. The hideous stuff just didn’t really work. It felt more like a horror movie so we gradually pared it back until I did a sketch which I put on a wall in the production office. That’s pretty darn close to what we ended up with with Scott’s makeup. What was important that this man was not only scarred and emotionally tattered on the inside in his heart and soul. The scarring and wounding was actually physical as well. So he’s 100% broken goods because it’s one thing to play someone with a form of PTSD and trauma. It’s another thing when you’re playing someone with trauma. Scott said by the end of it, as he put those false teeth in, the metal teeth, that was the switch that turned the character on. That’s when Cain Burgess came alive. He couldn’t play the scenes when he didn’t have the teeth in. He needed the teeth in to really click and find that character, this slightly larger than life, verbose, fighting, degenerate killer. So it ended up being quite useful having that. I’ve heard that quite a lot, that makeup helps you take that final step to lose yourself in that character. I love what he’s done with this. I’m very, very proud of the work he’s done.
WLE: Might we see the original makeup tests on the DVD?
JVJ: I don’t think we shot them. I think I’d come to makeup, we’re going to have a look at these, no, those aren’t working, and move on. The blind guy was just really creepy, the foggy eye.
JVJ: It really was. I’d written the script as a cockney character. I had always set it in the East End of London because for me growing up in England, those guys were heroes. You were too young and innocent at that point to realize they’re bad guys, but when you’re young, the gangsters in London look like real rebels and march to the beat of their own drum. So I’d written it as an East End gangster film. When Scott came on board, we played around with it being a Birmingham gangster film a little bit. He’s from Birmingham, much further north, different accent, different colloquialism. So the script was completely manifested as a Birmingham gangster movie set in Birmingham. Then with budget restrictions, and also getting cast, we knew we could get really, really good London cast and locations because that’s where our base was. If we went up to Birmingham, we’d have to be traveling people up there and putting them in hotels. So it ended up being an East End gangster film as it was originally planned. It went through quite a few manifestations before we found that comfort zone.
WLE: Are you doing Accident Man 2 and Debt Collector 2?
JVJ: With these kind of films, you’re in active development at any given time, working on four or five projects. When one goes, it’s a matter of timing, cast and finances. Working Louis and Scott was a joy. That’s why we brought him back for Avengement. I thought he was phenomenal as an Australian detective in London. It was really, really fun.