March 26, 2013

To make a thoughtful direct-to-video action movie is about as difficult as recovering from a meaty right hook to the jaw from Stone Cold Steve Austin. Working on shoestring budgets and two-week deadlines, most DTV product is a jumbled mess of plot holes and broken bones. So when a director is able to compose a coherent space and worldview out of such chaos, it’s a minor miracle. With The Package (2012), Jesse V. Johnson joins Isaac Florentine (Undisputed III) and John Hyams (Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) in accomplishing this magic act. It is a simple story well told, of a mob muscleman (Austin) tasked to deliver a mysterious package to a gangster known only as “The German” (Dolph Lundgren). Its contents are sought by a third gang, and what was a simple job for Austin turns into a war. Johnson strips down dialogue and establishes character through fighting styles: Austin is a deliberate and quiet thinker, waiting slowly for an opening for his devastating punch, while the flamboyant Lundgren speaks in long winding monologues before springing for a quick and outrageous kill. Johnson shoots fights up close but in wide angles, so the need for cutting is minimized and blows register with traumatic impact. Jesse V. Johnson has been a stuntman (The Amazing Spider-Man), a writer (The Butcher, 2009) and a director, and he took some time out to speak to me about his varied career adventures. We discuss Dolph Lundgren’s working methods, the fun and frustrations of working in DTV, and the motivation behind his viral Wonder Woman fan trailer.

One of the things I admire about THE PACKAGE is how the fight scenes tell an ongoing story. Steve Austin’s character moves slowly against quicker opponents, but maneuvers himself around them to deliver one of his knockout blows. Lundgren’s character is flamboyant and dramatic, and his brawls are equally showy.  Are you planning these fight scenes in the writing process, or does this action storytelling occur more on-set, with your stunt coordinator and actors?

I had planned to take my regular fight choreographer, Luke Lafontaine, to Canada with me, but that would have cost the production some of their tax incentive, so I was urged to hire a local Canadian, Paul Wu, a very capable young man. I didn’t write this script, but we discussed the various characters’ fighting styles at some length, and how they should reflect the physical size and fictional background of the key players.

There were two or three rehearsal sessions, where details were further refined, and then we shot.  Steve and Dolph are both so expert in this kind of business, that they adapt their choreography to what they know works for them and always operate within their comfort zone. I hired the adversaries, the other fighters, and was quite involved with Steve’s fights as to where and how they would escalate.

From that perspective, I wanted the adversaries all to look extremely energetic, highly technical and motivated to fight, while Steve’s character actually tries to talk his way out of every confrontation, or looks for a way to avoid the fight. It’s subtle, but I believe it makes him look like the more honorable man.  Without realizing it, you’re rooting for this battle-weary warrior with heart – he knows everyone he tangles with is going to end up in the hospital, there’s really nothing to prove anymore . I know guys like this, they are the calmest, gentlest souls, but God, you know if it came down to it, in a physical confrontation, you’d be hamburger meat in their hands.

With the actual choreography, I wanted to see Steve get punished, violently. I wanted the audience to be pissed, to accept that a line had been crossed and it was OK for this massive guy to get mad and get even. I feel many of these DTV movie fighters can end up looking like bullies – and if there is one thing I cannot stand, it’s a bully. If the supposed “good guy” overreacts, looks for trouble, uses guns that are bigger than everyone else, it’s all material that turns you against your protagonist.

Because of Austin’s incredible size, the audience would buy that he wasn’t going to get KO’d when he got beaten, taking this awful punishment. Then they root for him as he waits for the opportunity to throw this killer haymaker – few actors can get away with that, but if you’ve seen the size of Steve’s arms and hands, you know that is just not a bomb you want coming down on you.

Dolph Lundgren is very funny in THE PACKAGE. How much did you work with him in hitting this very theatrical tone?

We discussed it at length in pre-production — the silk dressing gown, hair, aged looking skin (to be honest I wasn’t at all convinced it was a good idea), but, when an actor is insistent, you know he’s going to be motivated, and more than anything I wanted him motivated.

When I saw what he was doing with the character, the slightly over the top take, I simply gave him enough room to do what he wanted.  That meant setting the stage in such a way that we could run his scenes as long takes, so the performance could build and remain in continuity – it would have been very difficult for him to have pulled this off without that methodology.

We’d shoot our coverage from the various angles that would allow me to cut in an artistic manner, but we ran all of the coverage as a complete take of the scene.  This sounds obvious, but it is rarely done, in these kinds of movies, it is laborious and will mean a lot more editing, and to a degree more time on set, but boy do your performances improve, and the actors know exactly where they’re supposed to be (emotionally, etc.,) at any time, so they have that look of belonging in their eyes – which can often be a lost, the kind of, “why am I here look” – if you’re not careful it’s all too easy to see it appearing on their faces on a short schedule.

The scene where he makes a fruit smoothie while interrogating a bleeding man really encapsulates the savagery and humor of Lundgren’s character. And also happens to be hilarious. Could you talk about shooting that scene? Did Lundgren improvise at all or was that exactly as written?

That scene was exactly as written by Derek Kolstad, as I mentioned before, there is almost zero improvising with Lundgren, he arrives ready to go and you set the stage in a manner that allows him to work most efficiently.

I feel it is my job as a director to gently feel out how to get the very best from my performers, and then make them feel like I am collaborating with them and watching, listening, able to bounce ideas back and forth, when the opportunity is right.  Compliment and applaud when the timing is favorable.  We talked about blocking (camera movement and placement) a lot.  I wasn’t allowed to show blood when the bullets hit people, so you notice the camera has to get all the way around behind the chair so we only see the back of the chair exploding – you imagine you’ve seen something violent, but there is actually no blood in those hits.

I saw the movie for the first time at a public screening, where there were a lot of WWE fans present. Steve was signing autographs afterward, and they starting laughing during that scene, I thought I was going to get beaten up when they found out who I was – then half way through the scene I realized they were laughing with us, not at us, it was really quite fun. It is very difficult to predict how straight-faced comedy will be received.

How much input do Lundgren and Austin have in their fight sequences? Is there a lot of give and take between them, fight choreographer Paul Wu and yourself?

These guys both know exactly what they can do well, and where they don’t look good. Lundgren has Barry Evans with him, Barry is a Kyokushin karate master, and has trained Lundgren for 40 years, he watches all of the choreography and has great insight.  Steve has been fighting for a living for thirty odd years, he knows what works best for him – these guys will say if they don’t like anything!

The choreography was quite straightforward, but the dialogue is always tricky, you’re trying to work it into the scene, without it seeming clunky or unbelievable, do you stop and chat (do your dialogue) or chat between punches? You rehearse and sometimes shoot it both ways if you can’t get a meter reading, but usually it is obvious.

With pros like Lundgren and Austin they get it quickly and we all nod our head and know it worked, other times you’re just not so sure.  With the fight itself [between them], we had about three hours, I wish I could have had three days. God, I’d have given you something epic!  But, these films are not laid out like that – they are a Rubik’s cube puzzle, how do you tell your story with flourish and some kind of artfulness in such a short amount of time?

I knew more than anything else I wanted to treat both these guys as mythic adversaries that require a certain kind of photography: low “tracking inwards” shots. The camera is always subservient, always catching up, you never look down on them, they always get the back light, the rim light – they never talk about themselves, have the other characters do that, in fact if at all possible have the other characters do all the talking.  With Steve, I treat him as I would if I were working with John Wayne, and I have read everything I can get my hands on, on that actor.

In the fight scene, they are evenly matched, but Lundgren is ill, and towards the end of the fight he loses steam, and with it the will to live. Austin capitalizes on this, but even then he doesn’t want to kill him, until he is left no choice.

The guys rehearsed this fight scene at quite some length, but, it all went in the trash when we ran out of time, and had to come up with the choreography for the second half of the fight on set – with the producers there, tapping their wrist watches, it was a real shame, but, we’ve all done it before. Lundgren was incredibly helpful, I cannot remember exactly what went down but he came up with a way of getting a chunk of the fighting shot without relighting, something really technical based but a simple solution that neither I or Kim Miles the DP had thought of, and it worked, it was pretty amazing really.

I thanked him profusely afterward, he laughed as he walked away saying something about fifty action movies, five that he directed himself, and that was that.

How has your relationship been with the producers on your DTV movies? Do you have freedom to shoot what you like as long as you meet your budget?

I had seventeen days to shoot the movie, we had heavy snow for half a day, and lost another half a day’s shooting to corrupted software.  The snow day allowed me to invent a scene with Darren Shahlavi’s character at the gas station, we just kept adding backstory, it was quite funny, we shot it about ten times, adding another line and another line each time, as we watched the snow slowly melt outside (where we were supposed to be shooting a different scene). I think we used the second-to-last take.  The last take was too much like Dr. Evil talking about his childhood in Belgium.

My relationship with my producers is usually good, or I tend not to do the project in the first place. I have become pretty good at judging character, my family are horse-traders and market men, so I think it is in my DNA. I look past the smiles and promises, and try to see what they’re like after the seventeenth hour on a day where we’re going into overtime, if I imagine they’re going to be destructive and spiteful, I move on, or continue with caution – if I can’t afford to turn down the job.

I have never had anything resembling creative freedom on these projects, but depending on how you align yourself with your employers from the start, you can attempt to make a movie close to your ideals, or something that matches the formula of what you would like to see in the theaters as much as is possible – it is bloody difficult, and not at all easy to do this by the way.

On The Package – I had to make a film with an overt killing or beating on every page into a TV safe movie, no blood, no swearing, no nudity, no profanity, or the film was going to be re-edited after my leaving. I knew this from the get go, and that was that, take it or leave it! I knew if there was a director’s cut, it would never see the light of day, so I decided to work within the system – The Dark Knight is a great example of smart violence in this respect – you think you’ve seen something that you really haven’t.  Cause and effect, sound effects, but no blood.  I’ve had people tell me they thought The Package was one of the most violent films they’d seen, I asked them to tell me which scene particularly, they usually describe a scene like the fruit smoothie scene where there is actually nothing shown at all, just implied.

I accepted this lack of blood as a great challenge, and am complimented in situations where people erroneously mention the amount violence in the movie.   It may sound corny and old hat, but given the right stimulus the human imagination is far more explicit than any fake imagery we can come up with.

I am not sure how many more DTV movies I want to make, I am positioning myself to move on to larger movies and intend to.  I am not a fan of watching many DTV movies on the whole, and prefer a film that reaches a larger audience, has greater production values associated with a larger budget and a recognizable cast of characters, but also a chance to work with the very best crews and technicians in the business. It is extraordinarily frustrating at times to work in DTV. We hire the cheapest talent available, while on a studio movie you hire the best available – that may not sound so very different, but it is exhausting to put your heart and soul into a project to be let down by shoddy sound design, or editorial incompetence, or a prop that looks awful, or any manner of other manageable issues.

However on The Package I was very lucky – it was one of those rare occasions when I able to work with a stellar technical crew. We were scheduled to shoot right after the Christmas holidays, so Justin Bursch and Jamie Goerhing were able to assemble a sensational team who otherwise might not have been available to us.  It did mean contending with the inclement weather, of course.  But, Kim Miles and his camera, grip, and lighting team are some of the very best working up there. Kim shot the Mortal Kombat series and always has great energy – I was very lucky to have him on board. My point is though, it is a gamble.

In many Hollywood action films, the shaky camera, quick edit aesthetic has made it harder to recognize the athleticism of stuntmen. Your work is clear and crisp in comparison. Does your experience as a stuntman inform your shooting and blocking of fight scenes? Do you feel an obligation to show these scenes with clarity so the stuntmen’s work can be truly appreciated?

No obligation to the stunt men per se, I just don’t find that technique very “of the moment”, it feels old hat and passe.  It was/is used a lot to hide the fact that actors didn’t really move very quickly, or look very good; a long lens and a bit of wobble and you try to inject some energy into it.

Handheld has its place for sure, and can be eloquent beautiful and artistic – just don’t use it as a cover for poor choreography. My personal credo is something Robert Capa supposedly said: “If your pictures don’t look good you’re not close enough to the action.” I like to put a wide lens on and get right into the action, where kicks are glancing off the Steadicam, and everyone starts getting irritated, that’s when the footage starts to look visceral and exciting for me.

I competed in martial arts as a teenager, and I loved feeling my heart race, stepping into the ring to fight, it was so intoxicating I was almost passing out before the first punch had been thrown, which was when I usually ended up on my behind.  I wasn’t a very spectacular fighter, but getting hit, and seeing the room spin, watching the guy with pure aggression in his eyes come at you, and not being able to move fast enough to do anything about it, how exhilarating is that?  That’s the surge of emotions I try to recreate in my movie fights. I don’t like watching from afar, there’s no thrill, it’s sometimes necessary of course within the context of the story – but my favorite place to be is within the action, getting spattered with blood and mud and beer.

I read that stuntwork runs in your family, starting with your grandfather. Can you discuss your family’s history in the business, and how you got started in it?

My grandfather was a racehorse trainer and had many wonderful horses, he traveled the world and had many adventures, a real man, quick with his fists but always generous with his time and money to the deserving.  He provided horses to movies as a way of making a little extra cash. He had a wild thoroughbred that a Hollywood movie wanted, and his son was the only person he trusted to ride it, so they gave my uncle Vic Armstrong his first job, doubling Sophia Loren.  He has gone on to have a pretty good career, with an Oscar and BAFTA award.  I started out carrying his stunt bag and storyboarding action for him to direct as he cut his teeth as a second unit (action unit) director.  I went about things slightly differently, I have Irish blood and am slightly bloody minded – obstinate, and like to do things my own way. There were times when I wished I could have kept my mouth shut, and just worked with him, but we have to do what our heart tells us, or we’re nothing but pawns.

How do you think the stuntman’s job has changed with the evolution of digital technology? What were the major differences between working on an analog blockbuster like TOTAL RECALL compared to THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN?

Total Recall had many Vista Vision plate shots, very early CG work, so it wasn’t totally analog by any means.  Really, regarding the differences in stunts from then to now, you just have to understand what the effect is you need to give, and work within that technology.

For the individual performer, it is really no great change – there are always specifics to what you’re doing, stunt-wise; you have to fall here, miss the sharp edge, don’t knock over the actress, get through the candy glass, don’t go out of frame, and avoid the pyrotechnic effect that will blow up as you hit the ground – it’s very often the same now as it once was.

There is always room for error, and it is simply not an exact science – you do everything in your power to shift the odds to your favor. The survivors, the pros, the super stars within the stunt business know this and are disciplined, intelligent human beings, just as they were seventy years ago.

Wire work has become an incredible art, and is a technology all of its own. it was always there, but so slow and problematic, you’d have to use fine piano wire (Mary Poppins, etc.,). Now it’s easy to remove the wires in post – so there’s no need for many of the old stunt effects – air rams, high falls, Russian swings, these effects can all be achieved far more safely with wires – but they still require a stuntman to test the wire rigs, and more stunt men to rig and operate them.

You must evolve with the technology and embrace it, you keep learning, experimenting and challenging yourself. There’s always a place for the professional, who is willing to risk it all for the shot, he’ll do it within the realms of his experience and will have trained hard and rehearsed, but it’s still a stunt, and he is still a professional (If you cannot do a second take it’s not a stunt but an accident).

There is a great desire right now within Hollywood to go back to a more romantic era of action, to give the audience the impression that it is seeing real danger, to do the stunts without/with less CG, without blue screen, I like this, and think it’s cool, but frankly, I think the investment should be made in character and story telling. The action defines itself from these ingredients first and foremost.

What are the most dangerous stunts that you have been asked to perform? Have you ever turned down a job because of safety concerns?

There used to be a live show guy that would go through the stunt book calling people from A-Z to do ridiculous stunts for cash in hand, in Vegas, diving into six inches of water, dropping inside a car 200 feet onto a pile of cars. I turned those down, I have no interest in risking my life that way.

The stunts I have performed are all valid, but nothing particularly special. I am not a great fan of stunts with animals. Horses are problematic for me, as are diving near sharks, or scrambling through the Thai jungle with snakes and spiders.

Although I don’t remember often being “scared”, just focused – you have to realize you are truly living in these moments of fear, your senses are racing, you can think about seven things at once, and then shut everything down and focus like a laser pinpoint on the task at hand, and time does often feel like it is slowing down, it is a wonderful dynamic rush – your adrenaline is often surging, and you will feel bullet proof, all the rehearsals have created a muscle memory, and you come out of it on top, you’re not dead, and it’s over. Great fun.

I always feel the biggest sense of responsibility when I’m coordinating. I am very protective of my performers. Last year I was directing the action unit on a Russian movie in Utah  [Bilet na Vegas], and we had a ’67 Cadillac convertible careening backwards out of control on the wrong side of a freeway headed towards an eighteen wheeler. The Cadillac was then supposed to swerve, missing the eighteen wheeler, and perform a reverse 180, effectively correcting itself, and drive away.

I was very tense, we rehearsed for weeks, and knew how to do it safely, but there are so many troubling factors: should the Cadillac turn over, could the passengers (all stunt performers) pull their heads down into their laps using their straps and avoid being decapitated, would the eighteen wheeler hit them as they swerved around it….  It was nerve wracking, but it was a very nice one to pull off successfully.

How did you get involved in the Wonder Woman fan trailer (watch here)? There are still not a lot of strong female characters in the superhero world – did that factor into you taking the job?

I wanted to test a camera system [the Sony FS700] that I was planning to shoot a passion project feature on. I chose to make a short film about one of the most maligned super heroes there is. Talk about messing up a cool character.

She was an awesome hero created in the dark days of WWII to give hope to the women working in the factories, to inspire them to do their bit for the war effort, a woman who didn’t need a man, she was a warrior – great stuff, then in the 80′s they put a non-physical actress in high-heels and had her wobbling around, jumping and rolling, throwing punches like a seven year old (Yes, I realize she is sacred to many 40 year old men, but I have daughters, I’m looking for a role model for them, someone they can root for).

You cannot blend these two versions, so I decided to go back to the original, I put my spin on it, with the scars and bullet-scraped armor, but it was all in the spirit of the original (I laugh hard when people ask why I didn’t stick to the original Wonder Woman!). It was an extremely fun project that really hit a chord. I wish I could afford to do a short or fan trailer every month.

It has landed me more studio meetings than any of my features, so it has served its purpose – thank you, Wonder Woman.

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